Something to Consider…

We recently asked church leaders about the following situation:

A church member, who you know to be politically active, approaches you with a voter guide and asks that it be handed out at your church prior to the November general election.

What’s your policy on voter guides?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
First Amendment, United States Constitution

While the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution clearly allows the free exercise of religion and prohibits restrictions on speech and the press, it has become established in tax law that 501(c)(3) organizations such as churches cannot take sides in partisan politics, nor can they lend support to a candidate involved in an election. The law does allow churches to take positions on public policy issues. They can even comment on issues that divide candidates running for office, so long as issue advocacy does not become candidate advocacy.

Confused? Perhaps looking at some Q&A’s will help.

Question: Under what conditions can someone who is a candidate for public office, or is being courted to run for public office, speak at your church without the church being considered to have engaged in campaign intervention?


Question: Can your church contribute towards a candidate’s campaign?

Answer: No

Question: Can the church get in trouble with the IRS if someone shows up and puts flyers promoting or opposing a particular candidate on members’ cars in the parking lot or puts campaign flyers in the church’s lobby?

Answer: Yes

Question: Can the church conduct voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives?

Answer: Yes, with conditions:

The IRS has said, Preparation or distribution of voter guides, because of their nature, present a particular risk for non compliance.

Question: Can the church have a ministry that helps people get to the polls?

Answer: Yes, with conditions:

Question: If an elected official who is up for re-election attends a church meeting, can his presence be acknowledged by a church leader?

Answer: Yes, as long as he is introduced only by office and name. The fact that he is up for re-election, or that a position he has taken on an issue that the church agrees with or that the church either supports or opposes his re-election cannot be mentioned.

Question: On occasion the church rents space to outside groups to meet using the church’s facilities. Can the church rent space to a political candidate?

Answer: Yes, with conditions:

Question: Can the church rent its mailing list to a candidate?

Answer: Yes, with the same conditions as the previous answer.

Question: Can a church’s website include links to other websites that have candidate information on them?

Answer: No

Question: Can a church allow voter guides to be displayed or distributed on its property or on its website?

Answer: Yes, with conditions

The limits on churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations’ involvement in political campaigns that we’ve outlined can be especially hard for a church to strictly abide by if the candidate is a church member. It’s even more difficult for churches that have developed a close, one-big-family type of environment. But it’s important for church leaders to recognize what’s at stake. Whether the candidate a church supports is running for dog catcher or the president of the United States or anything in between, violating the prohibition on campaign intervention can result in the church being levied an excise tax or, in a worse case scenario, losing its tax exemption. Loss of tax exemption could harm a church far greater than a temporarily unhappy church member. We suggest that church leaders choose wisely.

Taking a Stand

As long as church pastors, employees and leaders speak for themselves, as individuals, they are free to express their opinion, or support or oppose a particular candidate.
Fortunately churches can take positions on public policy issues, even if they are issues that divide candidates in an election for public office. But they must be careful to avoid advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention.

Here are some guidelines for churches who wish to issue statements on public policy while staying out of trouble:

Generally churches are expected to address the societal morals of the day by whatever means are available to it. But sometimes moral issues turn up as issues in an election campaign. If a church regularly promotes its position on say, same-gender marriage, it shouldn’t have to feel compelled to stop or back off if a candidate running for office is using that same issue in their campaign. But if a church waits until an election approaches to bring up a particular issue that is also part of a candidate’s campaign, then it could be viewed as participating in partisan politics. It is our understanding that the timeframe that the IRS uses in determining whether or not this has happened is six weeks.

Individual’s First Amendment Rights

What we’ve already mentioned may frustrate a church pastor, employee or leader who is inclined to be politically active. But as long as they speak for themselves, as individuals, they are free to express their opinion, or support or oppose a particular candidate. If church leaders or employees choose to exercise their right of free expression we encourage that they make it clear that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of their church.

The separation of personal beliefs from those representing the church must be complete. For example, say a pastor writes in one of his regular church newsletter columns that he supports a particular candidate. It’s likely that he would expose his church to a charge of intervening in politics, even if he includes that his comments are personal and don’t reflect those of the church. The problem is that he has used an asset of the church to convey his message.

Perhaps a pastor is friends with other pastors who hold similar political views. Can they run an ad in the local newspaper supporting or opposing a particular candidate? If the ad is not paid for by any of the pastors’ churches or denominations and any titles or affiliations listed are noted as provided solely for identification purposes only, they are free to do so.

Let’s say that a pastor attends a community meeting and is interviewed by a local reporter. The reporter asks about who the pastor supports in the upcoming election. As long as the pastor does not say that he is speaking on behalf of his church, publication of the interview does not constitute campaign intervention by his church.

In advance of the 2014 mid-term elections, the IRS settled a lawsuit with the Freedom from Religion Foundation by agreeing to conduct enforcement in this area of 99 churches. While we do not know which churches they plan to observe, we believe that churches that choose to obey the law should have nothing to fear. To help churches, the Alliance Defending Freedom has prepared a document containing guidelines for preaching pastors. You can read their document by CLICKING HERE.

We hope that we’ve cleared up any questions you may have had about churches getting involved in political campaigns. If we overlooked a situation that your church is facing, please contact us and let us help you navigate the landscape of politics. In the meantime, please vote for the candidate of your choice. The country’s future depends on Christians participating at the polls.

Please Note: This information is provided with the understanding that Church Administrative Professionals is not rendering professional advice or service.

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Deborah Miller, cca

Charles Kneyse

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