In order to maintain their exemption from federal income taxes, churches and other religious organizations must comply with several requirements specified in section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. One of these requirements is that the organization not participate or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.
Many churches have violated this requirement in the past with no adverse consequences. However, the landscape is changing. Recent pronouncements by the IRS suggest that this election year will not be "business as usual." It is now more important than ever for church leaders to be familiar with the consequences of political involvement.
There were two recent developments involving alleged campaign intervention by churches:
(1) An Episcopal church in California invited a guest speaker to preach a sermon during a worship service on the Sunday before the 2004 presidential election. The guest speaker's sermon was entitled, "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush." The sermon allegedly was critical of various policies of President Bush, including the Iraq War and poverty relief. It was later posted on the church's Internet website.
The IRS launched a two-year examination of the church's campaign activities. It issued a letter to the church on September 10, 2007 in which it concluded that the church had violated the tax code's ban on campaign intervention. However, the IRS pointed out that "this appears to be a one-time occurrence and that you have policies in place to ensure that the church complies with the prohibition against intervention in campaigns for public office." As a result, the IRS elected not to revoke the church's tax-exempt status.