Politics And The Pulpit

This article was originally published in October 2004

Another election season is upon us and with it a flurry of information and misinformation about what churches and other religious organizations can and cannot do. Fortunately for religious leaders, the law is relatively clear.

THE LAW

Like all organizations that are exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and eligible to receive tax deductible contributions under section 170(c)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code, churches are prohibited from supporting or opposing any candidate for elected public office. This prohibition applies to candidates for federal, state or local offices. The IRS enforces this prohibition though audits, fines, and loss of tax-exempt status.

Q: Doesn't the First Amendment allow churches to support and oppose candidates?

A: No. Churches, like all organizations tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, are absolutely prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates for elected public office. As recently as 2000, a federal appellate court squarely rejected a church's claim that the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause allowed the church to urge the public to vote against a candidate. Branch Ministries and Dan Little, Pastor v. Rossotti, 211 F.3d 137 (D.C. Cir. 2000); see also Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574, 603 (1983) (Supreme Court held that "not all burdens on religion are unconstitutional . . . . The state may justify a limitation on religious liberty by showing that it is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental interest." (citation omitted)). The fact that a church may be motivated by its religious principles will therefore not prevent a church from losing its tax-exempt status and facing other penalties if it supports or opposes any candidate.

WHAT IS SUPPORTING OR OPPOSING A CANDIDATE?

The courts and the IRS consider all of the relevant facts and circumstances in determining whether a church has supported or opposed a candidate. While making donations to candidates, raising funds for candidates and endorsing candidates are prohibited, so are more subtle efforts to support or oppose candidates. In its recently updated Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations (Publication 1828), the IRS provides the following examples of prohibited activities by churches:

Sermon. Minister D is the minister of Church M. During regular services of Church M shortly before the election, Minister D preached on a number of issues, including the importance of voting in the upcoming election, and concludes by stating, "It is important that you all do your duty in the election and vote for Candidate W." Since Minister D's remarks indicating support for Candidate W were made during an official church service, they constitute political campaign intervention attributable to Church M.

Church Newsletter. Minister B is the minister of Church K. Church K publishes a monthly church newsletter that is distributed to all church members. In each issue, Minister B has a column titled "My Views." The month before the election, Minister B states in the "My Views" column, "It is my personal opinion that Candidate U should be reelected." For that one issue, Minister B pays from his personal funds the portion of the cost of the newsletter attributable to the "My Views" column. Even though he paid part of the cost of the newsletter, the newsletter is an official publication of the church. Since the endorsement appeared in an official publication of Church K, it constitutes campaign intervention attributed to Church K.

Candidate Invitation. Minister F is the minister of Church O. The Sunday before the November election, Minister F invited Senate Candidate X to preach to her congregation during worship services. During his remarks, Candidate X...

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