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Following the Money Trail

By Tamika Thompson

Many of the great social movements that have transformed American life have arisen from religious principles, which is why the language of the First Amendment recognizes that religion cannot be separated from civic life.

“Why is the establishment clause lumped in with free speech, free media, freedom to assemble and freedom to petition government?” asked Sean P. Treglia, Senior Fellow at the Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. “If it’s about the separation, why is it in the amendment about the freedom to speech?”

According to Treglia, the answer can be found by looking at some of America’s major social movements over the last two centuries including the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, prohibition, civil rights and the early days of the Vietnam peace movement. 

“All of these social movements that transformed this country were started by religious leaders and led by religious congregations,” Treglia said. “The First Amendment, if it’s about anything, is about the connection between religion and public life.”

Although section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code does not allow church leaders to endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit on behalf of the church, the endorsement of social movements by religious leaders and religious organizations is acceptable, Treglia said. 

The tax code does not allow churches and their leaders to endorse political candidates because it gives the church too much power, he said. “The tax code reflects what the Founders told us. It’s okay for religions and religious organizations to participate in civic life.  But when it comes to voting, that’s too much.”

Treglia warned journalists to not “get sucked into the daily smokescreen” of religion and politics, and take a step back and look at the larger historical context of religion and politics including the First Amendment and past and present social movements.

While keeping the historical context in mind, journalists should look at four areas in the upcoming election, Treglia said.

  1. Issue ads.  Journalists must examine issue ads and follow the money trail, Treglia said.  Journalists should determine where the ads originated and who funded them.

  2. Voter guides.  “A very powerful tool that non-profit religious organizations have developed ... is the seemingly innocuous voter guide,” Treglia said. 

    Voter guides should be solely educational with a list of candidates and about ten issues, Treglia said, adding that journalists must look at the guides to determine if they are educational or if there is a political message buried in the language.

  3. Congregation list. Another sign of a church involving itself in partisan politics is whether the congregation list goes to one campaign and not the other, Treglia said.
  4. Voter registration.  These activities must be nonpartisan, Treglia said.  Journalists can visit the churches and look at the registration activities to determine if they are truly nonpartisan or are promoting a candidate.
Journalists have an abundance of online resources for tracking the stories behind faith-based and non-profit organizations, said Cheryl Phillips, an investigative reporter at The Seattle Times and a computer-assisted-reporting expert.

Phillips offered journalists several resources to use to cover the nuts and bolts level of religion, many of which are on the web.  Phillips pointed to the following:

  • The Catholic Encyclopedia ( is a good starting point for journalists.  It offers more than 11,000 articles on Catholic topics as well as a list of other Catholic web sites.

  • The American Religious Data Archive ( allows journalists to search for surveys online.  If journalists can’t find what they are looking for, then they can suggest surveys for the web site to set up.

  • ( is a resource that provides religious statistics with original citations so journalists can go to the source of the information.

  • The Gallup Poll ( has free sections on its web site that allows journalists to look at information for religious stories.

  • The Hartford Institute for Religion Research ( can provide religion research information in a social science framework.  The site offers information on organizations as well as topic areas. 

  • The Association for the Sociology of Religion ( and the General Social Surveys ( web sites are good resources.  Journalists should also contact the researchers who put together the surveys, Phillips said.  They usually prove to be a big help in obtaining additional data that is not posted on the web site.

Phillips also recommended additional government and database resources on the web:

  • The Federal Assistance Awards Data System ( allows journalists to determine which churches are getting federal grant money.

  • The EEOC Enforcement Data (, is a site where journalists can get information on religious discrimination in the workplace.

  • Argali (, is a site with a free download that allows journalists to search all online databases for a person’s telephone number, address and e-mail address.

  • The Wayback Machine (, archives web pages and allows journalists to search an organization’s web page from past dates.

  • The invisible web (, which allows journalists to search databases and archives that can’t be found through popular search engines like Yahoo! or Google.

  • The Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics (, which allows journalists to get statistics and other information on non-profit organizations and their activities.

  • Journalists can also look at federal audits online at  Any entity that receives $300,000 or more in federal grant money is automatically audited, Phillips said, and the audit is a good place to track that grant money.

  • The Government Accountability Reports ( are a good source for journalists as well as county records, which will help journalists track county grants, Phillips said. 

  • At Guidestar, the National Database of Nonprofit Organizations, ( journalists can search for any non-profit organization’s financial snapshot and even view their 990 tax form.  Some churches will file a Form 990 if they perform charitable functions such as food banks, Phillips said.  That information will be available at Guidestar’s web site.

    When viewing a 990 tax form for a non-profit charitable organization, Phillips said that there are key items that journalists should check.  They include contributions and grants, money spent on special events, expenses, subsidiaries and related entities, the highest paid employees and their salaries and the highest paid contractors and their salaries.
  • Investigative Reporters and Editors ( offers tip sheets that will help journalists sort through tax forms, Phillips said.

Journalists can also use a number of off-line resources in order to track money to and from a religious organization, Phillips said.

Journalists should check on property records, in-house publications, tax returns and internal financial records, Phillips said.  She added that consultants and former members, board directors and employees will also be knowledgeable about the organization.

While investigating a faith-based or non-profit organization, other journalists have used marriage records, the organization’s videotapes, civil court cases as well as checking a person’s or organization’s post office box to see who else is affiliated with the box, Phillips said.

Finally, if a journalist finds that some religious organization has questionable business practices, the journalist should not assume that the organization has bad intentions, Phillips said, adding that “sometimes they just don’t know how to manage.”


Watch Sean Treglia’s Speech

Watch Cheryl Phillips’ Speech

View Powerpoint from Cheryl Phillips’ presentation

The Catholic Encyclopedia

The American Religious Data Archive

The Gallup Poll

The Hartford Institute for Religious Research

The Association for the Sociology of Religion

General Social Surveys

The Federal Assistance Awards Data System

EEOC Enforcement Data


The Wayback Machine

The Invisible Web Directory

Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics

Federal Audit Clearinghouse Home Page

Government Accountability Reports

Guidestar, the National Database of Nonprofit Organizations

Investigative Reporters & Editors, Inc.

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