More and more Americans are dumping their TVs and expensive cable, and 15 percent of Americans don’t use the Internet, at all. So where are these people getting their politics? Millions of Americans align themselves with a religion, and many of them are getting their political opinions from religious organizations. Members may say, “It’s my choice.” Yes, but is it legal?
The Pew Research Center developed an extensive guide to answer questions about churches, politics, and tax laws. It’s called, “Preaching Politics From The Pulpit.” If caught breaking federal laws, religious organizations may have their tax exemption status revoked. This can lead to a loss of substantial cash back tax benefits equalling large amounts of money.
According to Pew, to qualify for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status under the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must meet the following requirements:
- The organization must be organized and operated exclusively for religious, educational, scientific or other charitable purposes;
- Net earnings may not inure to the benefit of any private individual or shareholder;
- No substantial part of the organization’s activities may involve attempts to influence legislation;
- The organization may not intervene in political campaigns;
- The organization’s purposes or activities may not be illegal or violate fundamental public policy.
These laws are not new and have been a part of the Internal Revenue Code since 1954 after being introduced by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. And these laws do not only apply to religious organizations; they apply to all organizations under 501(c)(3) status, and they are no more stringent for churches than they are for schools, hospitals, museums, scientific organizations… None of these organization can take part in political campaign intervention—if they want to maintain their tax exempt status.
Some cry out, “unfair!” claiming the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s protects the rights of their religious organizations to engage in political activity. Well, they have a point, except for this:
The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” Although the Internal Revenue Code prohibition against political campaign intervention may burden the exercise of religion to the extent that a religious organization must choose between the receipt of the benefits of tax exemption and intervention in a political campaign, not every burden on religious exercise is constitutionally prohibited.
What political activities are prohibited under the Internal Revenue Code?
Religious organizations, as well as all other organizations exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, are prohibited from participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for elective public office.7
This prohibition encompasses a wide array of activities. It precludes direct political campaign intervention, including the making of statements, whether oral, written or in an electronic medium, supporting or opposing any candidate, political party or political action committee (“PAC”); creating a PAC;8 rating candidates;9 and providing or soliciting financial support (including loans10 or loan guarantees) or in-kind support for any candidate, political party or PAC. It also precludes indirect political campaign intervention of a sort that reflects bias for or against any candidate, political party or PAC, such as distributing biased voter education materials or conducting a biased candidate forum or voter registration drive.
Religious organizations can discuss political issues, they just cannot align or express preference for or against a candidate. They are permitted to engage in lobbying activities, but are also limited under the Internal Revenue Codes.
Clergy and/or other religious leaders can partake in political activities to their heart’s desire outside of their religious organization. If they imply they are acting on behalf of their religious organizations, they are violating tax laws.
Candidates can attend and speak during worship services, but if clergy members/faith leaders endorse the candidate, or take up a collection for the candidate’s benefit, or invite only one candidate for a particular office to address the congregation, they are violating tax laws.
The same rules apply if a clergy member is also a candidate.
- Religious organizations can educate voters about the issues and about candidates’ positions on the issues. However, voter education activities must be free from bias
- They can publish or distribute legislators’ voting records
- They can sponsor candidate forums
- They can conduct voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives
- And religious organization can rent facilities that can be used for civic or political events, but those facilities must be made available to all candidates on an equal basis. The religious organization renting out its facility cannot promote or advertise other services in connection with the political event.
Bottom line: If a religious organization, online or offline, violates political campaign intervention laws and shows political bias, the organization is subject to lose its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, and its annual income may also become subject to income tax as well as an excise tax.
If your church is in clear violation of federal tax laws, you may want to point it out to the clergy/faith leader. If it continues, and you object, or you see it happening with any nonprofit organization, you can report the violations to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
To learn more about religious organizations, politics and tax laws, you can read the Pew’s full report: Preaching Politics From The Pulpit. Two other active resources include the educational and nonprofit organizations: Americans United For Separation Of Church And State (AU) and Project Fair Play. The motto of Project Fair Play states: