When an election season approaches, churches may question whether or not they can participate in political campaign activities or advocate for a particular cause. Churches may hesitate to play an active role in political issues because they fear that participation will result in a violation of their tax-exempt status under the Internal Revenue Service’s guidelines. While churches should follow the guidelines, they are not excluded from participating in political activities. An area where churches are permitted—even encouraged—to play a role is the area of promoting civic engagement.
The following IRS guidelines outline the civic activities in which churches are permitted to engage. Before churches proceed, they should refer to these guidelines to find out what activities they are permitted to do without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.
“Section 501(c)(3) organizations are permitted to conduct certain voter registration activities (including the presentation of public forums and the publication of voter education guides) if they are carried out in a nonpartisan manner,” the IRS states. This means that under the IRS guidelines, churches may:
- Participate in voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives
- Distribute voter education guides
- Host candidates during public forums
Using these guidelines as a reference for what activities are permissible, churches can take steps to become active citizens in their communities and find specific ways to reach out to their respective communities to encourage political participation.
Churches and Promoting Political Issues
How can a church, while abiding by the IRS regulations, promote the values it believes in? How can a church take a stand on issues it deems important?
“They can definitely lobby for causes that are of major concern,” says attorney Midgett Parker, a senior editorial advisor for Church Law & Tax. Types of lobbying include “petitioning, writing letters, and even speaking publicly regarding issues that are of major importance to the church.”
Talking about certain political issues doesn’t necessarily cross the line. “You can talk about big issues like immigration or abortion as general political issues,” explains attorney Patrick Canon.
Rules for Lobbying
While lobbying is permissible, churches must keep certain guidelines in mind.
“Churches can engage in lobbying activities provided that the activity is not a substantial part of what the church engages in,” Parker notes. “And there are two tests the IRS looks at in determining whether or not the church has devoted a substantial part: the substantial part test and the expenditure test.”
What constitutes a “substantial part” for the IRS when it comes to church lobbying activities, Parker says, is the degree to which the church participates in lobbying activities. “If the IRS considers that [a church is] doing a substantial amount of their effort toward lobbying, then the IRS will come after that church,” Parker warns.
Unfortunately, the IRS provides no specifics to help churches know how much is too much. “It is truly lamentable that the IRS continues to refuse to provide churches with any meaningful guidance as to the definition of ‘substantial’ lobbying activities,” writes Richard Hammar in the annual Church & Clergy Tax Guide. “Churches may engage in insubstantial efforts to influence legislation, but once such efforts become substantial, the church’s tax-exempt status is in jeopardy. For now, church leaders must remain in the dark concerning the definition of these terms.”
However, Hammar also notes this limitation, ambiguous as it is, seldom gets enforced.
As far as expenditures are concerned, if the IRS determines the church spends too much of its funds on political activities, it will take a negative view, Parker says. Again, just how much is too much isn’t made clear by the IRS.
Encouraging Voters to Actually Vote
During an election season, churches may be looking for ways to encourage people to vote but may be unsure of how they can encourage voters while maintaining a neutral political position. Parker offers: “I think churches should be encouraging people to participate in the political process. You can do that without promoting any candidate. You can say, ‘Please go out and vote; it’s your civic duty to vote,’” Parker says.
Churches can reach out to the community and encourage others to participate in the political process. They can accomplish this in several ways, including going out into the community to do voter registration drives, providing those not registered to vote with the information they need to register, and informing residents about voting locations.
Church leaders may wonder if their role as a leader should exclude them from encouraging people to vote. Tom Ehrich, founder of Morning Walk Media and an Episcopal priest, offers the following insight on what role leaders could take.
“I think they should encourage people to vote,” states Ehrich. “I think they should be hosting discussions [focused on issues not candidates]. I think they should be bringing conversations into the congregation, doing things like focus groups to hear what life is actually like out there.”
Ehrich continues: “We need to help people get to the polls. We need to make voting a normative behavior of a responsible citizen.”
Beyond discussing the importance of voting, churches can take additional steps to facilitate discussion.
“In small groups and in conversations in our congregations . . . engage in dialogue with each other to discern what the issues are and how we feel about them,” he offers.
Transportation to Polling Places
For churches seeking practical ways to encourage participation in the political process, providing people with transportation to polling places is one way that churches can reach out to voters and encourage them to go to the polls. But there are some caveats. “They can do it so long as they do not attempt to endorse a candidate during that ride,” Parker notes.
Churches that choose to provide transportation to polling places should consider some of the risks, however.
“Do not assume that everyone that gets into your vehicle is there because they love the church,” Parker says. Parker points out that some people may seek to take advantage of the church’s transportation to the polls in order to find ways to jeopardize the church’s tax-exempt status.
In order to avoid situations that might put drivers in a position that could risk the church’s tax-exempt status, churches can take steps to ensure that drivers providing transportation know how to navigate these situations. “Make sure your drivers are trained and educated not to engage in any form of conversation that could be perceived as endorsing or attacking a candidate for office,” Parker advises.
Distributing Voter Education Guides
By providing voter education guides, churches have an opportunity to help ensure that voters stay informed about the candidates running for a political office. However, when distributing these guides, churches should keep a few things in mind.
“The IRS says it’s permissible [to distribute voter education guides] but the description of issues should be neutral; it should not be compared to the organization’s position,” says Parker. “I would recommend that the church take the candidates’ own words from their literature,” Parker says. “Include every candidate in your voter guide.”
Activities Involving Candidates for Political Office
Some churches may want to help their congregation learn about the candidates who are campaigning for office by inviting the candidates to address the congregation. Under the IRS guidelines, churches are permitted to host candidates. “If you hold a forum for candidates, which churches are permitted to do, they are places of assembly and it’s not [held] during worship service, it’s [held] during non-worship service. Invite all of the candidates for a particular office,” says Parker. “Do not allow any of the church leadership or those asking the questions to endorse a candidate based upon any aspect at all.”
While churches can invite candidates to speak, Parker points out that political fundraising should not be done during events involving candidates for political office.
Attorney Patrick Canon offers additional information for churches to consider when hosting candidates.
“You have to make sure that if you have the same group of people in, you’re asking them similar questions,” explains Canon. “Out of an abundance of caution, I’d just have the same list of questions for each candidate.”
When inviting candidates to speak, churches should give candidates an equal opportunity to address the congregation. Canon offers: “If you have, say, one candidate come to the Sunday service, you can’t really provide an opportunity for other candidates to only come to a Wednesday service that might not be as well attended.”
Outside of the church there are additional opportunities for church members to learn more about a candidate for office.
“One thing I would encourage churches to do, and this does not have to be done from the pulpit nor in the church bulletin but in small sessions, encourage people to go and hear the elected officials,” says Parker. “Engage in one-on-one or group interactions with elected officials. They’re human, too. They need to hear from all spectrums including members of the churches individually.”
Church Leaders and Candidate Endorsement
Individuals in leadership roles within the church may wonder if as a church leader they can endorse a candidate for political office without risking their church’s tax-exempt status.
Parker points to the following that churches leaders should consider when endorsing a candidate:
- Leaders should act in an individual capacity when endorsing a candidate
- Offer a disclaimer that the endorsement is your own and not that of the church or your role there
- Reserve your title as pastor for identification purposes
Making Activism a Priority
There are practical ways for churches and pastors to get involved in the political process and encourage people to vote. David Welch, founder of the US Pastor Council, offers insight into how churches can get involved.
“It does have to start in the pulpit and the pastor has to establish this as a priority ministry in the church,” explains Welch. “It can’t be something you do one Sunday a year and just happen to mention it. You have to decide this is part of your regular, ongoing ministry.”
Welch offers advice on how churches can encourage this type of participation.
“The first step is to form and establish a citizenship or community impact ministry . . . a legitimate, functioning ministry led by credible leaders in the church ][with the role … to help equip, educate, and activate the church in this area of ministry under the pastor’s authority,” Welch says.
Why Churches Should Be Involved
Whether it’s offering transportation to polling places or canvassing neighborhoods to provide information about voter registration, churches have the opportunity to affect the political process while keeping within the parameters set forth by the IRS for churches to maintain tax-exempt status.
Parker encourages churches to have an active role within the community.
“Churches need to be engaged in the communities where they’re located as part of being a good neighbor,” says Parker. “A good neighbor gets involved in their community for the betterment of their community, so being a good neighbor is what a church is called to do and that means helping participate but do it in an open, transparent, and nonpartisan fashion.”