Editor's note: A church newsletter featured an invitation to a luncheon for a political candidate, who is also a deacon at the church, and this raised concerns that the church isn't following the IRS restriction for tax exempt organizations, according to an NBC news affiliate in Wilmington, North Carolina. If your church is considering printing or posting information on political topics, Richard Hammar offers some help.
The tax code notes that section 501( c)(3) organizations are permitted to conduct certain voter education activities–including the presentation of public forums and the publication of voter education guides–if they are carried out in a non-partisan manner. In addition, they may encourage people to participate in the electoral process through voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. On the other hand, voter education or registration activities conducted in a biased manner are prohibited.
Many churches use websites to disseminate [political] statements and information. They also routinely link their websites to websites maintained by other organizations as a way of providing additional information. A 2007 IRS statement includes the following:
A website is a form of communication. If an organization posts something on its website that favors or opposes a candidate for public office, the organization will be treated the same as if it distributed printed material, oral statements, or broadcasts that favored or opposed a candidate.
An organization has control over whether it establishes a link to another site. When an organization establishes a link to another website, the organization is responsible for the consequences of establishing and maintaining that link, even if the organization does not have control over the content of the linked site. Because the linked content may change over time, an organization may reduce the risk of political campaign intervention by monitoring the linked content and adjusting the links accordingly.
Links to candidate-related material, by themselves, do not necessarily constitute political campaign intervention. ... The facts and circumstances to be considered include, but are not limited to, the context for the link on the organization's website, whether all candidates are represented, any exempt purpose served by offering the link, and the directness of the links between the organization's website and the webpage that contains material favoring or opposing a candidate.
Voter education activities will not constitute intervention in political campaigns so long as the activities are neutral and nonpartisan. If the questions or presentations demonstrate a particular bias, then the church's exempt status is threatened.
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