After a nearly five-year hiatus, it appears the Internal Revenue Service is again monitoring political activities by churches and flagging those whose activities may violate electioneering restrictions placed on 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations.
The participation by churches and church leaders in political campaigns is an American tradition dating back to the founding of the republic. Common examples include:
- inviting candidates to speak during worship services
- distributing "voter education" literature reflecting candidates' views on selected topics
- voter registration activities
- enlisting volunteers for a particular candidate's campaign
- collecting contributions for a particular candidate
- statements by ministers during worship services or in church publications that support or oppose candidates
Unfortunately, it is not well understood that these kinds of activities, as well-meaning as they may be, jeopardize a church's exemption from federal income taxation. This is because section 501(c)(3) of the tax code specifies that a church or other public charity is exempt from federal income taxation only if "no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation, and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office."