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Clarifying the IRS Rules About Endorsing Candidates From The Pulpit

October 27, 2010

Recently in the news, there have been stories about clergy endorsing political candidates from the pulpit:

Pastors Preach Politics from Pulpit– News42.com
Hastings Pastor Defends Endrosement – WCCO.com
Pastors, Not the Gov’t, Should Decide When They Can Speak About Candidates From the Pulpit – Christian Post
Minnesota Pastors Plan to Endorse Candidates From the Pulpit – Minnesota Independent

This article will focus on the official IRS stance on this topic. Several pages of the Internal Revenue Service Publication 1828 examine this issue.

In order to keep their tax exempt status churches and religious organizations must abide by certain rules according to the IRS.  Under IRS 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.” By breaking this rule, the IRS may deny or revoke the tax-exempt status of the church and the impose of certain excise tax.

Publication 1828 also discusses “Individual Activity by Religious Leaders.” The IRS publication says that the prohibiting political campaign activity within these tax-exempt organization is not intended to restrict free speech on political matters for individuals. Religious leaders can speak their mind and endorse candidates as long as they aren’t doing it as an official representative of the church(i.e. church publications or at official church functions).  When speaking/writing their opinions on political issues outside of the church, church leaders are urged to indicate that these are their personal viewpoints and not the views of the religious organization they represent.

The following are examples from the IRS regarding what is and isn’t allowable in relation to religious leader political endorsements:

Example 1: 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 does not constitute political campaign intervention by Church J .

Example 2: 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 reelected . Minister B does not 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 did not 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 do not constitute political campaign intervention by Church K

Example 3: 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 reelected .” 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 .

Example 4: 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.

Issue Advocacy vs. Political Campaign Intervention

Even if a message does not expressly tell your congregation to vote for or against someone, churches may be intervening in a political campaign if any part of the message favors or opposes a candidate.  According to the IRS, key factors in determining if a message 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 and/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
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From → Clergy Tax Law

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