PREACHERS & POLITICS: WHAT DOES THE IRS ALLOW?

Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3) prohibits tax-exempt organizations from 2 activities:

  1. Influencing legislation (must not be substantial part of total activity)
  2. Campaigning in elections (must not engage in this activity at all)

Influencing Legislation

  1. What is “legislation?”

A. Laws enacted by legislative body

B. Not:

(1) Calling for enforcement of current laws

(2) Decision of court, executive official, or administrative body

(3) Appointment of official

What is “influencing?”

B. What it is:

(1) Direct lobbying

(2) Indirect lobbying

B.What it is not:

(1) Informational activity

(2) Technical advice (information given at legislator’s request)

(3) Self-defense

(4) Communication to members that

      (a) Goes only to members

      (b) Concerns legislation of special interest to your church

      (c) Does not encourage action

What is “substantial?”

A. IRS Regulation 1.501(c)(3)(1)(c): “more than insubstantial”

B. No precise mathematical formulas, but generally:

(1) Under 5%: probably ok

(2) 5-20%: questionable

(3) Over 20%: probably not ok

Influencing Elections

No “substantial” test here; total prohibition

What are “elections?”

A. National, state, or local voting for public officers or legislators

B. Partisan and nonpartisan

Appointments not included

Candidates’ forum probably ok if open to all candidates

Voter registration drive ok if nonpartisan

Passing out literature for one candidate, refusing others, probably not ok

Voting record surveys probably ok if:

A. Only incumbents surveyed

B. Not timed to election

No commentary

Status of law is unsettled if survey goes beyond this

General Observations

Rules pertain to churches, not pastors, or members

A. Pastor may endorse candidate, using title and position

B.Endorsement from pulpit? Not clear yet.

2.Church can’t give money to candidate; individuals can

3. Giving your membership list to a candidate: Probably ok if charge a fair price for it, and/or make it available to all

4. When addressing political issue, use Scripture as your basis

5. Civic Concerns Class or Committee

A.Part of church

B.Independent

6. Consider 2 Corporations:

A.Church: 501(c)(3) corporation

B.Political Action Committee (PAC): 501(c)(4) corporation

Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005 (HR 235)

John Eidsmoe
Senior Counsel, Foundation for Moral Law
Professor, Oak Brook College of Law
Pastor, Association of Free Lutheran Congregations
Lt. Colonel, U.S. Air Force Reserve (Ret.)
Colonel(MS), Mississippi State Guard
2648 Pine Acres, Pike Road, AL 36064
(334) 270-1789 • EidsmoeJA@juno.com