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August 27, 2012

The Politics of Religion

What church leaders should know in an election year.

We've recently looked at the political activity of churches. In the upcoming September/October 2012 edition of Church Law & Tax Report, Rich Hammar revisits what the Internal Revenue Service says is--and isn't--allowed by churches when it comes to political candidates running for office:

The income tax regulations interpreting the limitation on political campaign intervention provide that neither a church nor any other organization can be exempt from federal income taxation if its charter empowers it “directly or indirectly to participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” The regulations further provide that:
"The term “candidate for public office” means an individual who offers himself, or is proposed by others, as a contestant for an elective public office, whether such office be national, state, or local. Activities which constitute participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate include, but are not limited to, the publication or distribution of written or printed statements or the making of oral statements on behalf of or in opposition to such a candidate." Treas. Reg. 1.501©(3)-1( c )(3)(iii).
This regulation provides some clarification. In particular, it clarifies that:
  • A “candidate” for public office includes local, state, and national candidates;
  • The prohibited intervention or participation in a political campaign can be satisfied either by the making of oral statements or by the publishing or distribution of written statements;
  • Statements made in opposition to, as well as on behalf of, a particular candidate are prohibited.

Read more coverage of churches and political activity in the September/October 2012 edition of Church Law & Tax Report. A one-year subscription is currently available at a special, $44 rate in honor of Church Law & Tax Report's 25th anniversary.

Related Tags: church law, communication, court, government, IRS, law, pastors, politics, preaching, Richard Hammar, sermons, tax

Comments

Let's get down to practicality, this could be taken as a gag order that a pastor is not allowed to express his personal opinions in the area of politicians. To what degree does this just refer to making an official endorsement or officially stating your position against a candidate rather than just sharing your personal beliefs in conversation? If others at church are discussing politics is a pastor not allowed to express his position in the matter under discussion? (I am not referring to doing so in a sermon.)

The calling ofthe Church is to spread life changing message of the gospel. When a persons life is transformed by the gospel they will changn, their values will change. This will influence their political thinking and then they will work in political settings. The Church involvement in Politics implies the union of church and state. Our country has separation of church and state. Many countries and areas of our country-Religion and the Government are one.

Mark,

In the context of casual conversations, even ones on Sunday mornings, it doesn't appear the IRS guidelines restrict pastors from sharing their personal views. As Rich notes: "The [IRS] Guide acknowledges that the campaign activity prohibition 'is not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of churches or religious organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals.' Nor are leaders 'prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy.' However, 'religious leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official church functions.' To avoid potential 'attribution' of their comments outside of church functions and publications, 'religious leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to clearly indicate that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization.'"

Based on the IRS language, the primary concern would be pastors who make public statements for or against candidates through an official church platform, such as a Sunday sermon or a church newsletter article.

It is worth noting that the IRS hasn't taken aggressive action in recent years against activity that might violate its guidelines. However, as Rich also notes in his article, the IRS has suggested it will take a more aggressive role in the future.

Here is a list of what Churches & Pastors Can and Can't do politically.

For Churches:
Conduct non-partisan voter registration Yes
Conduct non-partisan get out the vote activities Yes
Distribute non-partisan voter guides Yes
Distribute non-partisan voting records Yes
Support/oppose legislation Yes
Support/oppose ballot initiative Yes
Support/oppose political or judicial nominee Yes
Support/oppose political candidates No
Candidate speaks at church (not identified as candidate; political campaign is not mentioned) Yes
Host forum for political candidates (all candidates invited) Yes
Political fundraising No
Sale/rent church list to candidate at market value (made available to all candidates) Yes
Provide link on church’s website to candidate’s campaign website No
Contribute to political candidates No
Contribute to political action committees (PACs) No
Offer bulletin or newsletter ads at market rate Yes

For Pastors:
Conduct non-partisan voter registration Yes
Distribute non-partisan voter guides Yes
Distribute non-partisan voting records Yes
Support/oppose legislation Yes
Support/oppose ballot initiative Yes
Support/oppose political or judicial nominee Yes
As an individual, pastor endorses/opposes political candidate (no church resources/facilities used) Yes
Pastor endorses/opposes political candidate from pulpit No
As an individual, political fundraising (no church resources/facilities used) Yes
As an individual, contribute to political candidates (no church resources/facilities used) Yes
As an individual, contribute to political action committees (PACs) (no church resources/facilities used) Yes
Conduct nonpartisan get out the vote measures Yes

For more information see IRS Publication 1828 and Fact Sheet 2006-17, both available at www.irs.gov.

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