People of faith have been engaged in virtually every social reform movement throughout American history. Religious individuals and houses of worship have the right and responsibility to take part in important public debates. While the constitution and other laws protect that right, tax regulations that govern nonprofit entities, including houses of worship, bring legal restrictions.
Religious organizations, like other nonprofits that receive special tax treatment under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3) that allow donors to deduct donations, are restricted from intervening in political campaigns and dedicating a substantial part of their activities to attempting to influence legislation, often called “lobbying.” That does not mean that they cannot speak out on the social, moral and ethical policy issues of the day. Churches may not, however, support or oppose candidates for office without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. This restriction includes a prohibition on endorsements or opposition for a candidate from the pulpit. Advocacy activities on ballot initiatives, referenda, constitutional amendments and the like do not constitute prohibited electioneering, but those activities do count as lobbying.
As Christians and citizens, we are called to work toward a just society. Protecting the institutional separation of church has never meant silencing the faithful. Instead, we should advocate as responsible citizens in compliance with the law or work to change the laws. The tax laws that currently apply to nonprofits are designed to protect the charitable purposes of the organizations and integrity of the tax code, without unnecessarily infringing on the free speech and religious rights of individuals. Churches or other nonprofits that want to be more politically active also have the option of declining tax-exempt status.
In recent years, the Internal Revenue Service has issued improved guidance (revised in August 2015) to help tax-exempt organizations avoid implicit candidate endorsements. In Congress, there have been several recent legislative attempts to change the rules for churches, allowing endorsements of political candidates from the pulpit without threatening churches’ tax-exempt status. Some advocates have even encouraged active violation of the electioneering rule, seeking to prompt attempts at enforcement and a court review of IRS regulations. While we recognize that some tough cases will arise, the BJC supports the current IRS rules as striking the right balance between protections for individuals and tax-exempt entities and maintaining a healthy separation of church and state.
For more on this topic:
Visit our Church Electioneering Resources page
Politicize our charities and churches? No, thanks.
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Read the op-ed published by Religion News Service
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Pastors, pulpits and politicking
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