Churches participating in elections?
Churches, taxes, and political participation
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
A GUIDE FOR RELIGIOUS LEADERS
Americans United For Separation Of Church And State
518-C Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
(Received April 6, 2008, posted here 4/7/080.
Religious leaders frequently have questions about the
appropriate role of religion in politics and what activities houses of
worship may undertake in the political process. This guide, based on
information provided by two tax attorneys who are experts in non-profit
law, is designed to answer some of the common questions about this
Churches and other non-profit organizations that hold
501(c)(3) tax-exempt status must abide by Internal Revenue Service
regulations barring any involvement in partisan politics. The blanket
prohibition concerns only races for public office, not issues. Religious
leaders may speak out from the pulpit or in other forums on moral and
political issues. However, churches and pastors may not endorse
candidates for public office or advise congregants to vote for or
against certain candidates. Federal tax law in this area is quite
strict, and the IRS has indicated that it follows a “zero tolerance”
policy toward violations.
What types of activities are prohibited under the IRS code?
Endorsements by houses of worship or religious leaders of
candidates and statements of opposition to candidates are strictly
forbidden and can result in revocation of a house of worship’s
tax-exempt status. (However, clergy may endorse or oppose candidates as
individuals in forums outside the church, or work on behalf of
candidates during their personal time.)
In addition, houses of
worship may not contribute money to candidates, solicit contributions on
their behalf, or donate to candidates’ political action committees.
Religious organizations may not set up their own PACs.
||What constitutes an
endorsement or opposition to a candidate?
||Prohibited activities may
include letters of endorsement or opposition printed on
congregation letterhead, house of worship-sponsored
distribution of campaign literature, clergy advising
congregants to vote for or against candidates from the
pulpit, the display of campaign signs on congregation
property, and other activities that could be construed as
endorsing or opposing a candidate.
Does the IRS really enforce this law?
Yes. The IRS regularly issues statements reminding churches and
other non-profits to stay out of partisan politics, and the federal tax
agency does not hesitate to penalize organizations that violate this
What is the penalty if a house of worship violates this
Penalties can include loss of tax-exempt status or financial
penalties imposed on congregations.
Has this ever happened to a house of worship?
Yes. The Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., lost is
tax-exempt status in 1995 after the IRS determined it had violated
federal tax law by publishing a full-page ad in USA Today in late
October of 1992 advising people that voting for presidential candidate
Bill Clinton was a sin. The church sued in federal court to regain its
tax-exempt status, but lost in federal district court. A federal
appellate court later upheld the ruling denying the church tax-exempt
What types of political activities can houses of worship engage
There are many. For example, houses of worship may sponsor voter
registration drives. They may encourage voting and even help people get
to the polls on Election Day. They may not tell people who to vote for.
Houses of worship can also
sponsor non-partisan candidate forums. Religious groups may sponsor
forums at which all legally qualified candidates for a given office are
invited to appear. The questioning should be non-partisan in nature and
broad, covering a range of issues, not just moral or social issues of
concern to the congregation.
Houses of worship may send
questionnaires to candidates and ask them where they stand on issues.
However, before distributing the answers, religious organizations should
make sure the answers are accurate and that the questionnaire covers a
wide range of issues. Questionnaires should be sent to all candidates,
and the organization should not compare the candidates’ answers to its
preferred position on issues.
Can religious leaders speak out on political or moral issues?
Yes. The IRS prohibition on partisan politicking concerns
individuals seeking public office, not issues. Religious leaders may
take stands on political issues such as abortion, gay rights, gun
control, health care and many others. They may also support or oppose
What about voter guides? Can they ever be distributed in houses
Houses of worship should be extremely wary of voter guides
produced by outside organizations. When a guide has been produced by an
outside organization, religious leaders have no way of knowing if the
answers are accurate or if the guide has been intentionally slanted to
favor a certain candidate. Also, some organizations that produce guides
hold a different type of tax-exempt status, a status that permits them
to engage in some political activities that congregations are not
permitted to take part in.
It means nothing for an
organization to claim that its voter guides have been approved by its
own attorneys. The only question that matters is if IRS attorneys would
approve of the guide.
Remember, if a voter guide
produced by an outside group is determined to be partisan in character
and is distributed in a house of worship, the IRS has the legal right to
penalize the house of worship even though it did not produce the guide.
Exactly what may houses of worship do?
||Discuss public policy issues.
||Sponsor non-partisan voter registration
and encourage voting as good civic behavior
|| Sponsor candidate forums as long as all
leading candidates are invited and a broad range of issues
||Urge congregants to communicate with
candidates and make their concerns known to them.
||Comment on incumbent elected officials
not currently running for re-election or for another office.
Q. What are houses of worship prohibited from doing?
||Issuing statements endorsing
or opposing candidates.
||Donating money to a
||Offering office space to one
candidate and refusing it to another.
||Sponsoring rallies for
candidates in churches.
||Distributing biased or
limited issue voter guides.
churches support candidates for election?
from the Presbyterian Washington Office
dated 2/7/02; posted here on 2-8-02
Congress now has a bill that would remove the IRS
regulation against houses of worship supporting or opposing particular
candidates during an election.
Below is a comment from our Constitutional Services
department in reference to the issue as well as an article by Laura
Goodstein. This is a newly re-emerging issue. Contact your member of the
House with your opinion on this.
From Mark Tammen -- Constitutional Services of GA-PC(USA)
"Since this Bill has come into being since the
General Assembly last summer, I do not believe there is a GA action on
this specific point. The last time the General Assembly dealt with this
particular issue, we were quite uncomfortable with this sort of
In the 1988 Statement, "God Alone is Lord of the
Conscience," the Assembly opined:
"We recognize that speaking out on issues will
sometimes constitute implicit support or opposition to particular
candidates or parties, where policy and platform differences are clearly
drawn. Since such differences are the vital core of the political
process, church participation should not be curtailed on that account;
but we believe it is generally unwise and imprudent for the church
explicitly to support or oppose specific candidates, except in unusual
circumstances." (p. 52)
Therefore, I suspect if the Assembly were asked, based
on the last sentence quoted above, would likely not support HR 2357.
Churches on Right Seek Right to Back Candidates
February 3, 2002
By Laurie Goodstein
As far back as the Revolutionary War, America's
religious leaders have taken to their pulpits to galvanize their
followers on the political issues of the day from taxation to slavery to
But since 1954, when Senator Lyndon B. Johnson pushed
a little-noticed law through Congress, ministers have been barred from
preaching about political candidates. Under the law, churches are
prohibited from endorsing or opposing candidates or risk being stripped
of their tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service.
Nevertheless, the law is frequently flouted, and the I.R.S. rarely
Now religious conservatives are starting a campaign to
remove the prohibition. A Republican member of Congress from North
Carolina, Walter B. Jones Jr., decided last year to make it his
The cause has been taken up by more than 12 religious
conservative lobbying groups and is becoming a frequent topic on
Christian talk shows on radio and television.
Mr. Jones's bill, the Houses of Worship Political
Speech Protection Act, would "permit churches and other houses of
worship to engage in political campaigns." Although it has yet to
be scheduled for a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee,
the legislation, H.R. 2357, has gathered 112 co-sponsors, all but four
of them Republicans. Among them are the majority whip, Tom DeLay, and
the majority leader, Dick Armey, both of Texas.
"Many churches and pastors frankly don't speak
out on the moral issues of the day for the fear they may be regarded by
the I.R.S. as too political," said Colby M. May, Washington
director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which works on
religious cases. "You've got to ask, `Why are we putting our I.R.S.,
which is designed to collect revenue for the general treasury, in the
position of being the speech police?' "
Opponents say the bill is little more than a strategy
by leaders of the religious right like Pat Robertson, the Christian
broadcaster, to mobilize conservative churches on behalf of conservative
candidates. Mr. Robertson recently had Mr. Jones as a guest on "The
700 Club," his television show, and encouraged his viewers to
contact heir legislators to support the bill.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for
Separation of Church and State, defended the current law, calling it
"a good thing for the church and a good thing for our political
system." "If we change it," Mr. Lynn said, "we're
going to see politicians running around seeking support of Churches and
hoping that they can curry favor with those churches by promising them
money and favors."
The law dates from 1954, when Mr. Johnson added an
amendment to a revenue bill that prohibited all groups with a nonprofit,
or 501(c)3, tax-exempt status from endorsing or opposing candidates. It
passed by unanimous consent.
Historians have said Mr. Johnson intended to silence
two groups connected to the Hunt family, which opposed his re-election.
But because houses of worship also have the exempt designation, the law
also applied to them.
"Johnson took away the freedom of our preachers,
priests and rabbis," Mr. Jones said in an interview.
Nevertheless, years went by and preachers endorsed
politicians from the pulpit with no repercussions. But in the last two
decades, conservative and evangelical churches have become increasingly
involved in campaigns, drawing more scrutiny by the revenue service.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a
liberal watchdog group, began sending churches warnings about the
prohibition on partisan politics and reported several churches, accusing
them of overstepping the law.
On the talk shows, Mr. Jones and others have accused
the revenue service of biased enforcement, investigating just
conservative, predominantly white churches while ignoring liberal,
predominantly black churches that routinely invite candidates to appear
in their pulpits.
The I.R.S., which declined to comment, has penalized
extremely few churches. In the case that received the most attention,
the conservative Church at Pierce Creek in Conklin, N.Y., near
Binghamton, had its tax- exempt status revoked for sponsoring a
full-page advertisement that opposed Bill Clinton's presidential
candidacy. Although Mr. Jones's bill has become a pet cause for the
religious right, with the Rev. Jerry Falwell making it the centerpiece
of a recent fund-raising letter, it is unclear how many members of the
clergy will promote it. Even one minister whose church endured a
four-year investigation that was subsequently dropped said that although
churches should be allowed to endorse candidates, they should avoid it.
"I just think the religious entities of America
need to keep their prophetic voice," said the Rev. Ed Young, senior
minister of the Second Baptist Church in Houston. "And you lose
that if you send money to politicians or openly support them during an
ratified (or not) by the presbyteries
A number of the most important actions of the 219th
General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their
action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book
We're providing resources to help inform the
reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.
Our three areas of primary interest are:
which would remove the current ban on
lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as
possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.|
which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of
10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government
that was approved by the Assembly. |
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