Politics from the Pulpit?

 

Unless you are a cloistered cleric, you are aware—perhaps painfully aware—that we are in the thick of a presidential election year. Social media and the 24 hour news cycle provide an incessant source of political punditry and prognostication. You may enjoy and engage in the political debate in hopes that it will produce a better America with better laws—laws which greatly affect you, your family, and your neighbors. Or you may abhor the political discourse, preferring to speak only with your vote rather than risk driving a wedge between you and your family members or your neighbors. Those are just two of the choices you are entirely free to make—so long as you are not speaking or acting on behalf of a church or other type of 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization.

If you are speaking or acting on behalf of a church or other tax exempt organization, IRS rules prohibit the “publication or distribution of written or printed statements or the making of oral statements on behalf or in opposition to a candidate.” (emphasis added) Internal Revenue Manual Sec. 3(101)1. In other words, according to the IRS, a pastor is not free to publicize or say that his church endorses or opposes a particular candidate (even and perhaps especially a candidate that is seeking to abolish the IRS). A church or other tax exempt organization also cannot devote a “substantial” part of its activities carrying on propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation. Running afoul of these rules puts your organization’s tax exempt status at risk—even though the IRS has demonstrated an unwillingness to actually enforce these rules in even some of the most blatant of cases.

That is not to say that all political speech or activities are off limits. For instance, a church may still lobby in favor or against legislation and support referendums so long as such activities are not a “substantial” part of their overall activities.

The Pacific Justice Institute has also provided a list of specific acceptable activity examples that shed more light on the allowance for non-profit’s political interaction. 501 (c)(3)’s may act on:

  • Conducting non-partisan voter registration drives
  • Allowing the distribution of non-partisan voter education materials
  • Hosting candidate or issue forums where all candidates are invited and allowed to speak,
  • Allowing candidates and elected officials to speak at church services (all must be invited if political) while making clear that the church is not endorsing any political candidates but rather for testimonial purposes
  • Educating members of the congregation about pending legislation
  • Engaging in issue advocacy
  • Spending no more than an insubstantial amount of the church’s budget

That is also not to say the IRS rules are constitutional as they restrict a pastor’s freedom of speech. For example, in an exercise of his freedom speech and religious liberty, a pastor may feel called by to speak out against a particular candidate:

“I endorse candidate Joe because he will fight to protect unborn children and religious liberty.”

or

“I urge you not to vote for Bill because he wants to change the definition of marriage which God has given us"

In these situations, God calls us to put Him first and to do so with humility and wisdom. Although the pastor cannot publicly endorse candidates on behalf of the church under the IRS rules, he can do so in his capacity as a private individual under his right of free speech. He may even identify himself as a pastor of such a church and state his views from the pulpit as long as he makes it clear he is not acting on behalf of the church in his private endorsement. Alliance Defending Freedom every year holds Pulpit Freedom Sunday, encouraging pastors to preach election sermons. The goal is to challenge the IRS restrictions in court on the basis that government cannot control what can be said in a church. Thousands of pastors have participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday and even mailed their sermons to the IRS. So far, the IRS has not challenged a tax exempt status of any of the pastor’s churches.

With many hot religious topics out on the debate table these days, it is critical for non-profit leaders and pastors to be aware of the specific codes affecting their free speech.

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