Political Guidelines for 501(c)(3) and Churches
This content is extracted from a brochure available from the Concerned Women of America and has been reviewed and approved by CWA’s legal counsel, Webster, Chamberlain, & Bean. Just click on the following hyper-link to access the complete twenty-six page guidance “THE CHURCH AND POLITICS: A REVIEW OF THE IRS GUIDELINES FOR CHURCHES”.
Churches can make a tremendous difference in government and public policy by helping the members of their congregations be informed, responsible citizens. As part of its mission, a church should educate on:
A church can educate its congregation through:
One of the most important tasks a church can perform is to teach its members how to be effective citizens.
General Rule: Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, churches may engage in some “legislative activity” and still qualify for favored tax status, as long as such activity is not more than an “insubstantial” part of its overall activity in terms of time and money (e.g., worship service, Sunday school programs, etc.). In other words, the amount of permissible legislative activity is somewhat vague. Legislative activity that amounts to 5 percent of all church activity is generally considered “safe.” Legislative activity between 5 and 20 percent is less certain and, therefore, less safe. Activity over 20 percent has been found unacceptable by the Internal Revenue Service.
“Legislative activity” is defined as any conduct intended to influence:
It covers such legislative activity as:
IMPORTANT: The Internal Revenue Code places no limitations on the legislative activity of church members—including pastors who act as individuals, not as representatives of the church.
A church may loan its membership or mailing list
to another organization for the purpose of influencing legislation. However,
the cost of providing the list would constitute a legislative expenditure.
General Rule: The Internal Revenue Code absolutely prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches, from engaging in activity in support of or in opposition to any candidate for public office—or from participating in a political campaign. On the other hand, a church may engage in some nonpartisan election related activities, including voter registration and voter education projects. Nonpartisan means “based on, influenced by, affiliated with, or supporting no single political party.”
ELECTION-RELATED ACTIVITIES ALLOWED:
Appearances by Candidates
Voter Registration and Get-Out-the-Vote Drives
Voter Education/Voter Guides
Several nonpartisan, nonprofit groups like Concerned Women for America publish voter guides that are appropriate for church distribution and do not jeopardize a church’s nonprofit status. Generally, the voter guide must cover a wide range of issues and avoid editorial comment. The distribution of an incumbent’s voting record would also be appropriate, as long as the publication avoided editorial comments that would prompt a reader to vote for a specific candidate.
ELECTION-RELATED ACTIVITIES NOT ALLOWED IN CHURCHES:
A church may not endorse or oppose a candidate for public office. Nor can a pastor from the pulpit—or acting on behalf of the church—endorse or oppose a candidate.
Appearances by Candidates
A candidate may not be allowed to deliver a political speech, particularly to garner support or raise funds for a campaign.
Contributions and Fundraising
A church may not loan its membership list or mailing list to a candidate or political committee for use in an election campaign. This would violate the Internal Revenue Code prohibition on participation in an election campaign. In a federal election, it could also violate the FECA prohibition on indirect expenditures by a corporation for a federal campaign since church funds were used to develop the membership list.
This perspective is intended to be a general
discussion and should not be interpreted as legal advice. Churches or pastors
needing advice as to particular circumstances should seek the counsel of their
own legal/tax advisers.