Churches and Political Activity

We’re in the midst of another national election. From what I’ve observed, United Brethren churches keep a good balance when it comes to political activity, and most prefer to avoid partisan politics. Which is proper, according to the IRS publication, Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations. Consider this excerpt from the section “Political Campaign Activity”:

“Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status….When it participates in political campaign activity, a church or religious organization jeopardizes both its tax-exempt status under IRC section 501(c)(3) and its eligibility to receive tax-deductible contributions.”

Most UB churches owe their tax-exempt status to the denomination, which provides an umbrella 501(c)(3) exemption. One politically vocal UB church could, conceivably, jeopardize the charitable status of all UB churches, and cause tithes and offerings to no longer qualify as charitable contributions. So it’s a serious thing.

But not likely. We all know that the IRS ignores many churches (on all sides of the political spectrum) that engage in highly partisan activity. They seem reluctant–for now–to enforce these rules or to tangle with churches in general. But the rules do exist. I thought you might be interested in knowing some of them.

  • Voter education activities, such as public forums and voter guides, are okay as long as they are conducted in a non-partisan manner. Likewise for voter registration efforts. To be non-partisan, these efforts must not favor one candidate over another, must not oppose a candidate in some way, and must not “have the effect” of favoring a candidate or group of candidates (i. e., a political party).
  • Religious leaders can express political views only as individuals. They can’t make partisan comments in official publications (newsletters, bulletins, websites, blogs) or at official church functions (like church services). To make the separation obvious, religious leaders are encouraged to clearly indicate that their comments are personal and don’t represent the views of the organization.
  • If a minister attends a political rally and voices his support for a particular candidate, it’s okay. No church assets are used, it’s not an official church function, and he is speaking only for himself (unless he goes farther and says that his whole church endorses that candidate).
  • If a minister stands in church and says, “It is important that you all do your duty in the election and vote for Candidate So-and-So”–that’s definitely a no-no.
  • Churches can invite political candidates to speak, but must provide equal opportunity to all political candidates seeking that particular office. And churches can’t indicate that they either support or oppose a candidate. No political fundraising can occur at such events, either.
  • Context counts, too. “A church or religious organization that invites one candidate to speak at its well-attended annual banquet, but invites the opposing candidate to speak at a sparsely attended general meeting, will likely be found to have violated the political campaign prohibition.”
  • Candidates can be invited to speak in a non-candidate capacity, without the need to invite opposing candidates. But you can’t mention the person’s candidacy for office or conduct any kind of campaign activity. Keep it neutral. You could say, “We’re happy to have Congressman Smith with us today.” Just don’t add anything about his running for re-election.
  • Voter guides are okay, but “they may not be used to attempt to favor or oppose candidates for public elected office.”

That covers most of the key provisions.

  • Don Gentry
    Posted at 10:18h, 19 October

    I have a question about “Religious leaders can express political views only as individuals. They can’t make partisan comments in official publications (newsletters, bulletins, websites, blogs) or at official church functions (like church services).”
    I have found various resources that state similar rights of the pastor, but I have not found any that go so far as to say that as long as we are clear from the pulpit that it is our opinon we are not in violation of any tax exempt laws. I am curious where you copied the informaiton from so I can check it out for myself.
    Thanks for the info. You might want to also run an article about what we as churches are allowed to do from the pulpit. We have great liberty and freedom to express how the Church stands on any and all moral issues, and then we can express the congregation’s duty to vote their morals and provide them with voter guides that help them see where certain candidates stand on these moral issues.

  • Steve Dennie
    Posted at 11:30h, 19 October

    I was quoting from an IRS publication itself. The post includes a download link for that publication at the bottom.

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