Church Involvement in Political Campaigns
Apr 12, 2020
By Mark Goodwin, Synod-Owned Property Management
The Political Campaigns are in full swing! Do followers of Jesus have a role in shaping the future of secular government? Recall this reading from Matthew;
Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (Matt 22:17-21)
Do you think this example of Jesus refusing to be caught up in a political discussion is meant to be a guide for us today? (Insert your answer here _______) No matter how you answer however, it certainly can’t be refuted that Jesus commanded us to act in certain ways toward one another; care for the needy, feed the hungry, share with the poor, welcome the immigrant, the list goes on and on; In other words LOVE ONE ANOTHER. We do this as individuals, through our church communities, and through our government programs which we support by our taxes. So yes, many Christian individuals claim to be rightful participants in the political process of forming our secular governments and electing our pollical leaders as following the commandments of the Great Teacher.
But what is the role of the church in this? The short answer is; “Its complicated” Can your church promote social justice causes? Yes! Can your church promote one political candidate over another, because of social justice causes? No, not without jeopardizing your federally issued tax-exempt status. But what constitutes the church promoting a political candidate? This campaign season, as many churches may choose to engage in conversation around social justice issues it would be beneficial for us to have a better understanding of the nuanced differences between these two according to law.
The following excerpts are from from the Tax Guide for Church & Religious Organizations, Publication 1828, Department of the Treasury Internal Revenue Service
Substantial Lobbying Activity, Measuring Lobbying Activity, and Political Campaign Activity
Substantial Lobbying Activity
In general, no organization, including a church, may qualify for IRC Section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). An IRC Section 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.
Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions or similar items (such as legislative confirmation of appointive offices), or by the public in a referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment or similar procedure. It doesn’t include actions by executive, judicial or administrative bodies.
A church or religious organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.
Churches and religious organizations may, however, involve themselves in issues of public policy without the activity being considered as lobbying. For example, churches may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.
Measuring Lobbying Activity
Substantial part test. Whether a church’s or religious organization’s attempts to influence legislation constitute a substantial part of its overall activities is determined on the basis of all the pertinent facts and circumstances in each case. The IRS considers a variety of factors, including the time devoted (by both compensated and volunteer workers) and the expenditures devoted by the organization to the activity, when determining whether the lobbying activity is substantial. Churches must use the substantial part test since they aren’t eligible to use the expenditure test described in the next section.
Under the substantial part test, a church or religious organization that conducts excessive lobbying activity in any taxable year may lose its tax-exempt status, resulting in all its income being subject to tax. In addition, a religious organization is subject to an excise tax equal to five percent of its lobbying expenditures for the year in which it ceases to qualify for exemption. Further, a tax equal to five percent of the lobbying expenditures for the year may be imposed against organization managers, jointly and severally, who agree to the making of such expenditures knowing that the expenditures would likely result in loss of tax-exempt status.
Expenditure test. Although churches aren’t eligible, religious organizations may elect the expenditure test under IRC Section 501(h) as an alternative method for measuring lobbying activity. Under the expenditure test, the extent of an organization’s lobbying activity won’t jeopardize its tax-exempt status, provided its expenditures, related to the activity, do not normally exceed an amount specified in IRC Section 4911. This limit is generally based on the organization’s size and may not exceed $1,000,000.
Religious organizations electing to use the expenditure test must file IRS Form 5768, Election/Revocation of Election by an Eligible Section 501(c)(3) Organization To Make Expenditures To Influence Legislation, at any time during the tax year for which it is to be effective. The election remains in effect for succeeding years unless it’s revoked by the organization. Revocation of the election is effective beginning with the year following the year in which the revocation is filed. Religious organizations may wish to consult their tax advisors to determine their eligibility for, and the advisability of, electing the expenditure test.
Under the expenditure test, a religious organization that engages in excessive lobbying activity over a four-year period may lose its tax-exempt status, making all its income for that period subject to tax. Should the organization exceed its lobbying expenditure dollar limit in a particular year, it must pay an excise tax equal to 25 percent of the excess.
Political Campaign Activity
Under the Internal Revenue Code, all IRC Section 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches and religious organizations, are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of excise tax.
Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including the presentation of public forums and the publication of voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not constitute prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner. On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that: (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.8
Individual Activity by Religious Leaders
The political campaign activity prohibition isn’t intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of churches or religious organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals. Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy. However, for their organizations to remain tax exempt under IRC Section 501(c)(3), religious leaders can’t make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official church functions. To avoid potential attribution of their comments outside of church functions and publications, religious leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to clearly indicate that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization. The following are examples of situations involving endorsements by religious leaders.
Minister A is the minister of Church J, a Section 501(c)(3) organization, and is well known in the community. With their permission, Candidate T publishes a full-page ad in the local newspaper listing five prominent ministers who have personally endorsed Candidate T, including Minister A. Minister A is identified in the ad as the minister of Church J. The ad states, “Titles and affiliations of each individual are provided for identification purposes only.” The ad is paid for by Candidate T’s campaign committee. Since the ad was not paid for by Church J, the ad is not otherwise in an official publication of Church J, and the endorsement is made by Minister A in a personal capacity, the ad doesn’t constitute political campaign intervention by Church J.
Minister B is the minister of Church K, a Section 501(c)(3) organization, and is well known in the community. Three weeks before the election, he attends a press conference at Candidate V’s campaign headquarters and states that Candidate V should be re-elected. Minister B doesn’t say he is speaking on behalf of Church K. His endorsement is reported on the front page of the local newspaper and he is identified in the article as the minister of Church K. Because Minister B didn’t make the endorsement at an official church function, in an official church publication or otherwise use the church’s assets, and did not state that he was speaking as a representative of Church K, his actions didn’t constitute political campaign intervention by Church K.
Minister C is the minister of Church I, a Section 501(c)(3) organization. Church I publishes a monthly church newsletter that is distributed to all church members. In each issue, Minister C has a column titled “My Views.” The month before the election, Minister C states in the “My Views” column, “It is my personal opinion that Candidate U should be re-elected.” For that one issue, Minister C 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. Because the endorsement appeared in an official publication of Church I, it constitutes political campaign intervention by Church I.
Minister D is the minister of Church M, a Section 501(c)(3) organization. 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 concluded by stating, “It is important that you all do your duty in the election and vote for Candidate W.” Because Minister D’s remarks indicating support for Candidate W were made during an official church service, they constitute political campaign intervention by Church M. 9
Issue Advocacy vs. Political Campaign Intervention
Like other Section 501(c)(3) organizations, some churches and religious organizations take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office. However, 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate. A statement can identify a candidate not only by stating the candidate’s name but also by other means such as showing a picture of the candidate, referring to political party affiliations or other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography. All the facts and circumstances need to be considered to determine if the advocacy is political campaign intervention.
Key factors in determining whether a communication results in political campaign intervention include:
- whether the statement identifies one or more candidates for a given public office,
- whether the statement expresses approval or disapproval for one or more candidates’ positions or actions,
- whether the statement is delivered close in time to the election,
- whether the statement makes reference to voting or an election,
- whether the issue addressed in the communication has been raised as an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office,
- whether the communication is part of an ongoing series of communications by the organization on the same issue that are made independent of the timing of any election, and
- whether the timing of the communication and identification of the candidate are related to a non-electoral event such as a scheduled vote on specific legislation by an officeholder who also happens to be a candidate for public office.
A communication is particularly at risk of political campaign intervention when it makes reference to candidates or voting in a specific upcoming election. Nevertheless, the communication must still be considered in context before arriving at any conclusions. 10
Church O, a Section 501(c)(3) organization, prepares and finances a full-page newspaper advertisement that is published in several large circulation newspapers in State V shortly before an election in which Senator C is the incumbent candidate for nomination in a party primary. The advertisement states that a pending bill in the United States Senate would provide additional opportunities for State V residents to participate in faith-based programs by providing funding to such church-affiliated programs. The advertisement ends with the statement “Call or write Senator C to tell him to vote for this bill, despite his opposition in the past.” Funding for faith-based programs hasn’t been raised as an issue distinguishing Senator C from any opponent. The bill is scheduled for a vote before the election. The advertisement identifies Senator C’s position as contrary to O’s position. Church O has not violated the political campaign intervention prohibition. The advertisement doesn’t mention the election or the candidacy of Senator C or distinguish Senator C from any opponent. The timing of the advertising and the identification of Senator C are directly related to a vote on the identified legislation. The candidate identified, Senator C, is an officeholder who is in a position to vote on the legislation.
Church R, a Section 501(c)(3) organization, prepares and finances a radio advertisement urging an increase in state funding for faith-based education in State X, which requires a legislative appropriation. Governor E is the governor of State X. The radio advertisement is first broadcast on several radio stations in State X beginning shortly before an election in which Governor E is a candidate for re-election. The advertisement is not part of an ongoing series of substantially similar advocacy communications by Church R on the same issue. The advertisement cites numerous statistics indicating that faith-based education in State X is under funded. Although the advertisement doesn’t say anything about Governor E’s position on funding for faith-based education, it ends with “Tell Governor E what you think about our under-funded schools.” In public appearances and campaign literature, Governor E’s opponent has made funding of faith-based education an issue in the campaign by focusing on Governor E’s veto of an income tax increase to increase funding for faith-based education. At the time the advertisement is broadcast, no legislative vote or other major legislative activity is scheduled in the State X legislature on state funding of faith-based education. Church R has violated the political campaign prohibition. The advertisement identifies Governor E, appears shortly before an election in which Governor E is a candidate, is not part of an ongoing series of substantially similar advocacy communications by Church R on the same issue, is not timed to coincide with a non-election event such as a legislative vote or other major legislative action on that issue, and takes a position on an issue that the opponent has used to distinguish himself from Governor E.
Candidate A and Candidate B are candidates for the state senate in District W of State X. The issue of State X funding for a faith-based indigent hospital care in District W is a prominent issue in the campaign. Both candidates have spoken out on the issue. Candidate A supports funding the care; Candidate B opposes the project and supports increasing State X funding for public hospitals instead. P is the head of the board of elders at Church C, a Section 501(c)(3) organization located in District W. At C’s annual fundraising dinner in District W, which takes place in the month before the election, P gives a long speech about health care issues, including the issue of funding for faith-based programs. P doesn’t mention the name of any candidate or any political party. However, at the end of the speech, P states, “For those of you who care about quality of life in District W and the desire of our community for health care responsive to their faith, there is a very important choice coming up next month. We need more funding for health care. Increased public hospital funding won’t make a difference. You have the power to respond to the needs of this community. Use that power when you go to the polls and cast your vote in the election for your state senator.” C has violated the political campaign intervention prohibition as a result of P’s remarks at C’s official function shortly before the election, in which P referred to the upcoming election after stating a position on a prominent issue in a campaign that distinguishes the candidates.
Inviting a Candidate to Speak
Depending on the facts and circumstances, a church or religious organization may invite political candidates to speak at its events without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status. Political candidates may be invited in their capacity as candidates, or individually (not as candidates). Candidates may also appear without an invitation at organization events that are open to the public.
Speaking as a candidate. Like any other IRC Section 501(c)(3) organization, when a candidate is invited to speak at a church or religious organization event as a political candidate, factors in determining whether the organization participated or intervened in a political campaign include:
- whether the church provides an equal opportunity to the political candidates seeking the same office,
- whether the church indicates any support of or opposition to the candidate. This should be stated explicitly when the candidate is introduced and in communications concerning the candidate’s appearance,
- whether any political fundraising occurs,
- whether the individual is chosen to speak solely for reasons other than candidacy for public office,
- whether the organization maintains a nonpartisan atmosphere on the premises or at the event where the candidate is present, and
- whether the organization clearly indicates the capacity in which the candidate is appearing and does not mention the individual’s political candidacy or the upcoming election in the communications announcing the candidate’s attendance at the event.
Equal opportunity to participate. Like any other Section 501(c)(3) organization, in determining whether candidates are given an equal opportunity to participate, a church or religious organization should consider the nature of the event to which each candidate is invited, in addition to the manner of presentation. For example, a church or religious organization that invites one candidate to speak at its well attended annual banquet, but invites the opposing candidate to speak at a sparsely attended general meeting, will likely be found to have violated the political campaign prohibition, even if the manner of presentation for both speakers is otherwise neutral.
Public forum. Sometimes a church or religious organization invites several candidates to speak at a public forum. A public forum involving several candidates for public office may qualify as an exempt educational activity. However, if the forum is operated to show a bias for or against any candidate, then the forum would be prohibited campaign activity, as it would be considered intervention or participation in a political campaign. When an organization invites several candidates to speak at a forum, it should consider:
- whether questions for the candidate are prepared and presented by an independent nonpartisan panel;
- whether the topics discussed by the candidates cover a broad range of issues that the candidates would address if elected to the office sought and are of interest to the public;
- whether each candidate is given an equal opportunity to present his or her views on the issues discussed;
- whether the candidates are asked to agree or disagree with positions, agendas, platforms or statements of the organization; and
- whether a moderator comments on the questions or otherwise implies approval or disapproval of the candidates.
A candidate may seek to reassure the organization that it’s permissible for the organization to do certain things in connection with the candidate’s appearance. An organization in this position should keep in mind that the candidate may not be familiar with the organization’s tax-exempt status and that the candidate may be focused on compliance with the election laws that apply to the candidate’s campaign rather than the federal tax law that applies to the organization. The organization will be in the best position to ensure compliance with the prohibition on political campaign intervention if it makes its own independent conclusion about its compliance with federal tax law.
The following are examples of situations where a church or religious organization invites candidates to speak before the congregation.
Minister E is the minister of Church N, a Section 501(c)(3) organization. In the month prior to the election, Minister E invited the three Congressional candidates for the district in which Church N is located to address the congregation, one each on three successive Sundays, as part of regular worship services. Each candidate was given an equal opportunity to address and field questions on a variety of topics from the congregation. Minister E’s introduction of each candidate included no comments on their qualifications or any indication of a preference for any candidate. The actions do not constitute political campaign intervention by Church N.
The facts are the same as in Example 1 except there are four candidates in the race rather than three, and one of the candidates declines the invitation to speak. In the publicity announcing the dates for each of the candidate’s speeches, Church N includes a statement that the order of the speakers was determined at random and the fourth candidate declined the church’s invitation to speak. Minister E makes the same statement in his opening remarks at each of the meetings where one of the candidates is speaking. Church N’s actions do not constitute political campaign intervention.
Minister F is the minister of Church O, a Section 501(c)(3) organization. The Sunday before the election, Minister F invited Senate Candidate X to preach to her congregation during worship services. During his remarks, Candidate X stated, “I am asking not only for your votes, but for your enthusiasm and dedication, for your willingness to go the extra mile to get a very large turnout on Tuesday.” Minister F invited no other candidate to address her congregation during the Senatorial campaign. Because these activities took place during official church services, they are by Church O. By selectively providing church facilities to allow Candidate X to speak in support of his campaign, Church O’s actions constitute political campaign intervention.
Speaking as a non-candidate. Like any other Section 501(c)(3) organization, a church or religious organization may invite political candidates (including church members) to speak in a non-candidate capacity. For instance, a political candidate may be a public figure because he or she: (a) currently holds, or formerly held, public office; (b) is considered an expert in a non-political field; or (c) is a celebrity or has led a distinguished military, legal or public service career. A candidate may choose to attend an event that is open to the public, such as a lecture, concert or worship service. The candidate’s presence at a church-sponsored event does not, by itself, cause the organization to be involved in political campaign intervention. However, if the candidate is publicly recognized by the organization, or if the candidate is invited to speak, factors in determining whether the candidate’s appearance results in political campaign intervention include:
- whether the individual speaks only in a non-candidate capacity,
- whether either the individual or any representative of the church makes any mention of his or her candidacy or the election,
- whether any campaign activity occurs in connection with the candidate’s attendance,
- whether the individual is chosen to speak solely for reasons other than candidacy for public office,
- whether the organization maintains a nonpartisan atmosphere on the premises or at the event where the candidate is present, and
- whether the organization clearly indicates the capacity in which the candidate is appearing and doesn’t mention the individual’s political candidacy or the upcoming election in the communications announcing the candidate’s attendance at the event.
In addition, the church or religious organization should clearly indicate the capacity in which the candidate is appearing and shouldn’t mention the individual’s political candidacy or the upcoming election in the communications announcing the candidate’s attendance at the event.
Below are examples of situations where a public official appears at a church or religious organization.
Church P, a Section 501(c)(3) organization, is located in the state capital. Minister G customarily acknowledges the presence of any public officials present during services. During the state gubernatorial race, Lieutenant Governor Y, a candidate, attended a Wednesday evening prayer service in the church. Minister G acknowledged the Lieutenant Governor’s presence in his customary manner, saying, “We are happy to have worshiping with us this evening Lieutenant Governor Y.” Minister G made no reference in his welcome to the Lieutenant Governor’s candidacy or the election. Minister G’s actions do not constitute political campaign intervention by Church P.
Minister H is the minister of Church Q, a Section 501(c)(3) organization. Church Q is building a community center. Minister H invites Congressman Z, the representative for the district containing Church Q, to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the community center. Congressman Z is running for re-election at the time. Minister H makes no reference in her introduction to Congressman Z’s candidacy or the election. Congressman Z also makes no reference to his candidacy or the election and does not do any fundraising while at Church Q. Church Q has not intervened in a political campaign
Church X is a Section 501(c)(3) organization. Church X regularly publishes a member newsletter. Individual church members are invited to send in updates about their activities, which are printed in each edition of the newsletter. After receiving an update letter from Member Q, Church X prints the following: “Member Q is running for city council in Metropolis.” The newsletter does not contain any reference to this election or to Member Q’s candidacy other than this statement. Church X has not intervened in a political campaign.
Mayor G attends a concert performed by a choir of Church S, a Section 501(c)(3) organization, in City Park. The concert is free and open to the public. Mayor G is a candidate for re-election, and the concert takes place after the primary and before the general election. During the concert, Church S’s minister addresses the crowd and says, “I am pleased to see Mayor G here tonight. Without his support, these free concerts in City Park would not be possible. We will need his help if we want these concerts to continue next year so please support Mayor G in November as he has supported us.” As a result of these remarks, Church S has engaged in political campaign intervention.
Voter Education, Voter Registration and Get-Out-the-Vote Drives
Section 501(c)(3) organizations are permitted to conduct certain voter education activities (including the presentation of public forums and the publication of voter education guides) if they are carried out in a non-partisan manner. In addition, Section 501(c)(3) organizations may encourage people to participate in the electoral process through voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, conducted in a non-partisan manner. On the other hand, voter education or registration activities conducted in a biased manner that favors (or opposes) one or more candidates is prohibited.
Like other Section 501(c)(3) organizations, some churches and religious organizations undertake voter education activities by distributing voter guides. Voter guides, generally, are distributed during an election campaign and provide information on how all candidates stand on various issues. These guides may be distributed with the purpose of educating voters; however, they may not be used to attempt to favor or oppose candidates for public elected office.
A careful review of the following facts and circumstances may help determine whether a church or religious organization’s publication or distribution of voter guides constitutes prohibited political campaign activity:
- whether the candidates’ positions are compared to the organization’s position,
- whether the guide includes a broad range of issues that the candidates would address if elected to the office sought,
- whether the description of issues is neutral,
- whether all candidates for an office are included, and
- whether the descriptions of candidates’ positions are either:
- the candidates’ own words in response to questions, or
- a neutral, unbiased and complete compilation of all candidates’ positions.
The following are examples of situations where churches distribute voter guides.
Church R, a Section 501(c)(3) organization, distributes a voter guide prior to elections. The voter guide consists of a brief statement from the candidates on each issue made in response to a questionnaire sent to all candidates for governor of State I. The issues on the questionnaire cover a wide variety of topics and were selected by Church R based solely on their importance and interest to the electorate as a whole. Neither the questionnaire nor the voter guide, through their content or structure, indicate a bias or preference for any candidate or group of candidates. Church R is not participating or intervening in a political campaign.
Church S, a Section 501(c)(3) organization, distributes a voter guide during an election campaign. The voter guide is prepared using the responses of candidates to a questionnaire sent to candidates for major public offices. Although the questionnaire covers a wide range of topics, the wording of the questions evidences a bias on certain issues. By using a questionnaire structured in this way, Church S is participating or intervening in a political campaign.
Church T, a Section 501(c)(3) organization, sets up a booth at the state fair where citizens can register to vote. The signs and banners in and around the booth give only the name of the church, the date of the next upcoming statewide election and notice of the opportunity to register. No reference to any candidate or political party is made by volunteers staffing the booth or in the materials available in the booth, other than the official voter registration forms which allow registrants to select a party affiliation. Church T is not engaged in political campaign intervention when it operates this voter registration booth.
Church C is a Section 501(c)(3) organization. Church C’s activities include educating its members on family issues involving moral values. Candidate G is running for state legislature and an important element of her platform is challenging the incumbent’s position on family issues. Shortly before the election, Church C sets up a telephone bank to call registered voters in the district in which Candidate G is seeking election. In the phone conversations, Church C’s representative tells the voter about the moral importance of family issues and asks questions about the voter’s views on these issues. If the voter appears to agree with the incumbent’s position, Church C’s representative thanks the voter and ends the call. If the voter appears to agree with Candidate G’s position, Church C’s representative reminds the voter about the upcoming election, stresses the importance of voting in the election and offers to provide transportation to the polls. Church C is engaged in political campaign intervention when it conducts this get-out-the-vote drive.