American clergy are speaking out about the presidential candidates, but they could be breaking the law

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Religious Americans say that their clergy frequently speak out on hot-button political issues, and sometimes even support or oppose specific political candidates.

A study from the Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of Americans who have recently attended religious services have heard their preachers discuss religious liberty, homosexuality, abortion, immigration, environmental issues, or economic inequality. Nearly half say that their clergy have discussed multiple issues.

With so many political topics deeply tied to religious beliefs, that might not be surprising. But the study called attention to something that could be troubling: 14% have heard their preachers speak out in favor of or against a particular candidate.

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Pope Francis talks to journalists on his flight back to Rome following a visit at Armenia on June 26, 2016. Pope Francis today released peace doves on the Armenia-Turkey border in a gesture of reconciliation as Ankara slammed the pontiff for denouncing the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman forces as 'genocide'. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis, flanked by Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II, walks past honour guards to board a plane for Rome at Yerevan's Zvartnots Airport on June 26, 2016. / AFP / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis visits the Khor Virap monastery, Armenia, on June 26, 2016. / AFP / POOL / Alessandro Bianchi (Photo credit should read ALESSANDRO BIANCHI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves as he boards a plane for Rome at Yerevan's Zvartnots Airport on June 26, 2016. / AFP / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis, flanked by Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II and Armenia's President Serzh Sarkisian, attends a farewell ceremony at Yerevan's Zvartnots Airport on June 26, 2016. / AFP / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis and Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II leave at the end of the Divine Liturgy at the Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, outside Yerevan, on June 26, 2016. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis and Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II leave at the end of the Divine Liturgy at the Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, outside Yerevan, on June 26, 2016. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis and Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II attend the Divine Liturgy at the Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, outside Yerevan, on June 26, 2016. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis attends the Divine Liturgy celebrated by Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II (not pictured) at the Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, outside Yerevan, on June 26, 2016. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis attends the Divine Liturgy celebrated by Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II (not pictured) at the Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, outside Yerevan, on June 26, 2016. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis attends the Divine Liturgy celebrated by Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II (not pictured) at the Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, outside Yerevan, on June 26, 2016. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis attends the Divine Liturgy celebrated by Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II (not pictured) at the Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, outside Yerevan, on June 26, 2016. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives for the Divine Liturgy at the Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, outside Yerevan, on June 26, 2016. / AFP / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis and Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II arrive for the Divine Liturgy at the Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, outside Yerevan, on June 26, 2016. / AFP / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis embraces Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II as they attend an ecumenical meeting and a prayer for peace in Yerevan's Republic Square on June 25, 2016. / AFP / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis attends an ecumenical meeting and a prayer for peace in Yerevan's Republic Square on June 25, 2016. / AFP / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis and Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II water a tree planted in a Noah's Ark sculpture during an ecumenical meeting and a prayer for peace in Yerevan's Republic Square on June 25, 2016. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for an ecumenical meeting and a prayer for peace in Yerevan's Republic Square on June 25, 2016. / AFP / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis speaks during an ecumenical meeting and a prayer for peace in Yerevan's Republic Square on June 25, 2016. / AFP / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis attends an ecumenical meeting and a prayer for peace at Yerevan's Republic Square on June 25, 2016. / AFP / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
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Technically, that's against the law. Churches and other tax-exempt organizations are not allowed to back or oppose political candidates, according to a 1954 amendment to the US tax code called the Johnson Amendment.

The report didn't specify whether clergy supported or opposed candidates while actually in the pulpit, but if they did, then their churches could face consequences.

"If a number of clergy got up and endorsed Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump ... [and] if the IRS pursued that, it might revoke their tax-exempt status," John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, told The Washington Post.

Clergy are free to share their opinions on candidates on their own time, and nonprofit organizations can take positions on issues like poverty and crime.

But under the Johnson Amendment, Green said, political speech becomes a problem "when it's a pretty clear endorsement of a candidate."

The amendment has long been controversial. The 2016 GOP platform calls for it to be repealed, and Donald Trump has pledged to make that happen if he wins in November. Religious-liberty advocates have pushed to fight what they believe is a restriction on free speech through initiatives like the Alliance Defending Freedom's Pulpit Initiative.

"The IRS doesn't feed the hungry. The IRS doesn't comfort the hurting. And the IRS definitely doesn't heal the broken," the initiative's website states. "A pastor's pulpit should be accountable to God alone, and the future of religious freedom in America depends on it."

"pew study graph 2Pew Research Center

But even as it stands, the amendment doesn't appear to be dissuading clergy from expressing support or distaste for this year's candidates.

This is the first time Pew has asked this type of question, so it's not clear whether clergy are speaking out more or less than in previous years.

But Claire Markham, Outreach and Campaign Manager for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, believes that this particular election could be motivating political speech from the clergy because choosing between Trump and Clinton may seem like a moral choice as well as a political one.

"This is an unusual election," she told Business Insider. "For many of the values at the heart of a number of religious traditions — welcoming strangers, focusing on the vulnerable, a specific care for economic quality — a lot of these issues are discussed seriously by both candidates [in other elections], and I don't think that's happening now."

According to the survey, more clergy have spoken out in support of Clinton than Trump. This could be partially motivated by black churches, which have a history of being politically active. This election, 29% of black churchgoers heard their clergy express support for a candidate — almost always Clinton.

But even though the Pew study shows that clergy have more often embraced Clinton than Trump, religious conservatives tend to back Trump in part because he has supported policies that promote religious liberty – like repealing the Johnson Amendment.

"They [the Trump campaign] understand the importance of religious organizations and nonprofits, but religious organizations in particular which is what the Johnson Amendment affects, to have the ability to speak freely, and that they should not live in fear of the IRS," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told TIME. "That is a priority in the platform, and from the Trump folks, it is a priority of the campaign, and will be a priority of the administration."

But whether or not the Johnson Amendment survives, political statements from clergy are likely here to stay.

Churches are unlikely to actually get in trouble with the IRS if their clergy support or oppose a candidate, Markham said, because someone from the church has to complain, and then someone from the Treasury has to instigate an investigation.

"There's a very specific process for enforcement...it's rarely been brought to bear in recent history," she said.

Anthony Gill, a professor of political science at the University of Washington, believes it's against the interests of clergy to get political.

"That's [supporting a candidate] dangerous for the clergy because if a clergy member endorses a candidate who turns out to be corrupt or tainted somehow, their reputation is diminished as well," he told Business Insider. "A number of evangelicals run this risk with Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — if anything comes out that these people are less than upstanding politicians, their endorsement is going to affect their reputation as well."

And especially in places where churches play prominent roles, clergy could have a great deal of influence on their communities' votes.

"Clergy tend to be individuals who cultivate a lot of trustworthiness," Gill said. "It's not surprising that people look to clergy for advice in the practical world."

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