Should Churches Be Involved in Politics?

On Father's Day, numerous churches in Maine used their offering time to take up collections for a political action committee (PAC) campaigning against a same-sex marriage referendum on that state's ballot.

An article on points out such an activity is permissible, and won't jeopardize a church's tax-exempt status if conducted within reason. But many church leaders are often confused about what's allowed when it comes to politics. The Internal Revenue Service explicitly prohibits church support or opposition for political candidates in races; however, churches may lobby for or against legislation, including referendums on ballots, although the IRS is vague about how much or little it will permit.

Our nation celebrates its independence this week, and November seems far away, yet we already find ourselves in a heated political season. A contested race for the White House is underway, as are competitive races for congressional seats. Many states will have referendums covering a variety of social and moral issues, including abortion, religious liberty, and marriage. In some form or fashion, churches will see spirited, and perhaps contentious, political debate in their communities.

What role, if any, should they play in that dialogue?

One recent national survey indicates a majority of Americans prefer that churches don't engage in politics from the pulpit. The Pew Forum on Religion and Life said the percentage of Americans preferring churches stay out of politics has gone up over the years; 54 percent of Americans want churches to keep out of politics, according to the most recent survey, up from 52 percent in 2010 and 46 percent in 2006.

A June article by Reuters correspondent Nanette Byrnes looks closely at the cost of tax breaks received by U.S. churches (her analysis estimates $25 billion in lost revenue each year, between federal tax breaks on donations and exemptions from state and local property taxes) in the context of whether increased political involvement by churches is acceptable. Absent in her analysis is the many economic contributions churches make, as we've discussed in prior posts on neighboring businesses and valuable services provided to the community, but the overarching point remains: how much should churches engage in the political arena, and what will their involvement mean, in terms of their witness?

One pastor in Maine told Christianity Today he saw the Father's Day collection as part of a larger role the church must play in helping shape the national discussion about morality. "I see it as a duty, responsibility, and obligation part-and-parcel to our being salt and light in the world," he said. Conversely, some Maine churches support the same-sex marriage referendum; one house of worship opened up office space to the political action committee supporting the legislation so that a temporary campaign office can operate there during this election season.

As churches weigh the pros and cons of taking political stands based on their understanding of the Bible, and the numerous political persuasions represented within their congregations, some ultimately will choose to stay out altogether.

For those that decide to jump in, they still must exercise caution.

The IRS offers specific rules dictating activities with political candidates, and some of it is considered okay, including:

  • Forums for all candidates to address the church.
  • Public comments made by ministers and other church employees, not made at church facilities or in church publications and accompanied by a statement that the comments are strictly personal and are not intended to represent the church.

But specific financial or resource support, and official statements of support or opposition for candidates by a minister or a church can technically trigger an IRS review of the church's tax-exempt status. "Tax code prohibits tax-exempt organizations (including churches) from any participation in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office," said Richard Hammar, senior editor of Church Law & Tax Report, in "Campaign Activities."

Only one church in recent memory has lost its exemption because of such an act, however, and the Alliance Defense Fund, through its annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday, has encouraged pastors to preach publicly about candidates in a challenge to the IRS that has yet to be answered.

Regarding legislative campaigns and lobbying, attorneys including Frank Sommerville, a Church Law & Tax Report editorial advisor, suggest churches keep the money and resources involved at 15 percent or less of total church spending. That's loosely based on separate IRS guidance for nonreligious 501( c )(3) organizations that wish to get involved in legislative campaigns.

In weighing public sentiment, political discourse, IRS guidance, and your church's biblical viewpoints, what ways will it get involved—or not—this election season?

A full list of these permitted activities and unpermitted activities can be found in Church Politics Activity Guidelines. For more information on the tax and legal guidelines faith-based organizations need to know before jumping into the political fray, see the downloadable resourcePolitics and the Pulpit.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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