Politics and the Pulpit

Churches and IRS Election Code

With election season coming up, it is important to note what ministry leaders can and can’t do during an election. Under the Internal Revenue Code, § 501(c)(3), organizations (including churches and other ministries) may not, directly or indirectly, participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Violation of this prohibition may result in revocation of tax-exempt status, imposition of excise taxes, or both.

Ministries are prohibited from political campaign intervention—any activity that supports or opposes a candidate for public office. This includes candidate endorsements, contributions to political campaign funds, public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of a ministry for or against a candidate for public office, distributing statements prepared by others that are for or against a candidate for public office, or allowing a candidate to use a ministry’s facilities or assets.

Individual Activity by Ministry Leaders

The political campaign intervention prohibition does not restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of ministries speaking for themselves, as individuals. It is important to note that ministry leaders are not prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy. But while ministry leaders can speak about policy issues, they cannot make partisan comments in support or opposition of a candidate in either official ministry publication or during official functions of the ministry. Leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity (not in an official ministry capacity) are encouraged to clearly indicate that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the ministry they represent.

When it comes to supporting or opposing a candidate for public office, what is allowed and not allowed by the church during a campaign?

Not Allowed

  • A church may not make statements in support or opposition of political candidates for public office.
  • A church may not make contributions to candidates or political action committees.
  • A church may not make “in-kind” contributions or expenditures for or against candidates for public office. Such contributions would include use of church mailing lists or directories, use of church facilities, and providing volunteers from the church.
  • The church cannot engage in any fundraising for candidates for public office. For example, the church may not allow a candidate for public office to take an offering during a church meeting or service.
  • A church may not support or oppose candidates for judicial office, even if the candidates are required to run on a non-partisan basis.

Allowed

  • A church may allow a candidate for public office to appear at a church meeting or service as long as it is not for campaign purposes. If it is for campaign purposes, all candidates for that elective office must be afforded the same opportunity.
  • A candidate for public office may be introduced to the congregation during a church meeting or service.
  • A candidate for public office may read Scripture as long as he does not “preach” about his campaign or solicit volunteer workers or finances for the campaign.
  • A church may conduct non-partisan voter registration programs and get-out-the-vote campaigns.
  • A church may distribute neutral vote informant materials stating the positions of the candidates for public office on the issues of the campaign.
  • A church may rent its mailing list to candidates for public office, but the list must be made available to all candidates for that public office on the same terms and at the same prices.
  • Candidates for public office may use the church facilities, but all other candidates for that public office must be invited to use the facilities on the same terms.
  • A pastor may grant the use of his name in support of a candidate for public office and may include title and church affiliation in the personal endorsement if he includes the following disclaimer: “Title and affiliation for identification purposes only.”

IRS Red Flags

Finally, there are certain activities to avoid that indicate a church is in violation of the prohibition of political campaign intervention:

1. Distributing voters’ guides that encourage readers to vote for particular candidates

2. Using the church’s website or links to another website to endorse or oppose a candidate

3. Using the pulpit to endorse or oppose a particular candidate

4. Making cash contributions to a candidate’s political campaign

5. Placing signs on church property that show support for a particular candidate

6. Giving improper preferential treatment to certain candidates by permitting them to speak at functions

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