Last year, the State Ethics Commission fined the Hawaii Catholic Conference and Hawaii Family Forum for violating the state’s lobbyist law by failing to file certain disclosure reports and also failing to disclose certain expenditures. With the issue of same-sex marriage back on the front burner, the issue of lobbying and public disclosure by religious opponents could again become a problem.
For example, a reader emailed to point out that the New Hope Christian Fellowship is using its Facebook page to urge followers to contact their legislators and urge them to vote against any same-gender marriage.
Is this lobbying? And does it raise legal issues?
Lobbying, under both federal and state rules, includes urging others to contact legislators directly regarding specific legislation, so New Hope’s Facebook post would certainly meet the definition of lobbying.
But that doesn’t necessarily raise any red flags.
IRS regulations allow religious organizations to do limited lobbying as long as it doesn’t make up “a substantial part” of the organization’s activities. New Hope’s communication with their members urging them to lobby their elected officials could clearly not be considered “substantial” in relation to the group’s overall activities, so they appear to be in the clear on that front.
State law requires registration and/or reporting by individual lobbyists and organizations that hire lobbyists. Individuals who “for pay or other consideration” lobbies for more than five hours in a month, or spends more than $750 in a reporting period, would be required to register and disclose their spending.
Once again, New Hope wouldn’t meet that requirement unless one or more of its representatives are actively lobbying (or urging others to lobby) for at least five hours in any month or exceeds the $750 expenditure threshold. If printed versions of the Facebook lobbying instructions were prepared and distributed, for example, those costs could trigger the lobbying requirements, but right now it’s only speculation at best.
So my take on the question, for what it’s worth, is that there’s currently no evidence New Hope is in danger of violating the lobbyist regulations or the tax code restrictions on lobbying by religious organizations. That said, those closer to the ongoing lobbying may know of additional factual information that could change this conclusion.