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Workplace rules can govern political activity

November 01, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY

Those with election fever might find it tough to check their loyalties at the door when they go to work.

But they have to, according to rules in place at government agencies and other workplaces.

Nonprofit organizations must be vigilant about not violating Internal Revenue Service prohibitions on political advocacy, at the risk of losing tax exemptions.

In Maryland, state employees may speak their mind about politics during off hours, but are limited while on the job.

That limit, or a perception of it, was at the heart of a recent controversy involving Democrat Douglas M. Duncan, who said he was told not to speak at a Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce dinner scheduled to feature him and former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich discussing politics.

Duncan alleged that his job as a University of Maryland vice president was threatened if he spoke at the Hagerstown dinner, but, through the university system, he later issued an apology and said he misunderstood a colleague's advice.

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Also recently, a state employee who works in Washington County faxed a letter to the editor supporting a presidential candidate. The cover sheet was on the letterhead of his state agency. The head of the department said the employee should not have done that.

A section of Maryland law says, "Employment by the State does not affect any right or obligation of a citizen under the Constitution and laws of the United States or ... the State."

State employees "may freely participate in any political activity and express any political opinion."

However, an employee may not "(1) engage in political activity while on the job during working hours; or (2) advocate the overthrow of the government by unconstitutional or violent means."

The law affects state employees whose work is funded in part or entirely by federal money, Shanetta Paskel, the director of the Office of Legislative Affairs under Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, wrote in an e-mail.

Employees of local government bodies also are covered under the law.

In Washington County government, questions about political activity on the job don't come up, County Attorney John Martirano said.

"It's just really never been an issue," he said.

Hagerstown City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said in a telephone message that the city government has a few separate, applicable rules: Employees can't solicit for political gain and they can't post materials not related to work, including political fliers.

Similarly, Washington County Public Schools employees may be involved in political activities, as long as they don't interfere with work responsibilities or the district's ethics policies.

Workers at Volvo Powertrain North America, one of the county's largest private employers, may talk about politics, but can't use the workplace as a meeting place for political activities, spokeswoman Ilse Ghysens said.

She said employees may wear political T-shirts or pins, but can't post political stickers or signs on company property, which was more of an issue before Volvo acquired Mack Trucks in 2001.

Under IRS section 501(c)(3), groups exempt from paying taxes, including religious organizations, are "absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office," the IRS Web site says.

Organizations may hold nonpartisan forums and encourage people to vote, but not for a particular candidate, the site says.

Rabbi Fred Raskind of Congregation B'nai Abraham in Hagerstown said he focuses on issues connected to Judaism for sermons. Congregants seek his counseling and theology, but not his political analysis, although some want him to take public stances, he said.

"We have adherents of all political stripes," Raskind said. "One can practice Judaism from a number of different ... political prisms."

At St. Joseph Catholic Church in Halfway, a recent church bulletin summarized views of both major-party presidential candidates on abortion, capital punishment, education, health care, immigration, international justice and peace, marriage, religious liberties and stem-cell research, the Rev. Christopher Moore said.

Moore said he'll tell parishioners what the positions of the Catholic Church are, but won't go further.

"We encourage people to vote, and vote their conscience," he said.

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