Can churches donate to political campaigns or are they not allowed under the current tax laws?
Churches and the Culture
Christianity has always had a positive influence on the community, in the culture, and on the nations. They were always the first to build colleges and hospitals, as well as public schools, orphanages, charities, and convalescence homes. That is crystal clear from history, so why can’t a church play a major role in politics in addressing the moral issues of our day? Based upon Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and other publications by the IRS, churches can participate in certain activities related to the political process like sponsoring a “register to vote” campaign, just as long as it’s nonpartisan. Churches cannot support or oppose political candidates as an entity. Church attorneys suggest they can host a forum inviting the political candidates to speak, but churches cannot endorse any one of them. Individual members can participate in the political process, even endorsing candidates, but not as an extension or as representative of the church. You can set up a voter registration table in the church lobby, but you cannot have any political ads for or against any of the candidates or endorse or oppose any of the candidates running for office. It should be clear enough that churches cannot officially endorse or oppose any political candidate. Only individual members can publically declare who they support or oppose, but only as representing themselves as a private citizen or more specific, as a Christian. They just cannot represent the views of the church in their opinions in an official capacity.
Churches are not the only tax exempt groups that must adhere to federal IRS tax laws, so this law didn’t necessarily single out churches, but includes all tax exempt organizations. These laws are a requirement imposed by Congress for the privilege of being recognized as an organization which is tax exempt from federal income taxes (Section 501(c)(3)). These can include charities like the Salvation Army or a tax exempt educational institution. A church’s hands are not completely tied because they’re allowed to host voter education activities (which can include presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides), but churches must conduct them a non-partisan manner and must not constitute any prohibited political campaign activity. Certainly, churches can encourage people to participate in the voting process, such as voter registration, and get-out-the-vote drives, they just can’t publically endorse or oppose a candidate as a representative of the church. Churches cannot have fundraising drives for a specific political candidate or, as I have said, issue public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the church in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. This clearly violates the prohibition against political campaign activity by tax exempt organizations, like churches. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of a church’s tax-exempt status, while imposing certain excise taxes on them.
A church pastor or minister may mention a candidate or an upcoming future election, but he cannot speak in favor of (or encourage the congregation to vote for or against) a particular candidate. That is strictly forbidden. These restrictions are not just for the pastor but the entire church and use of any of the church resources for the benefit, support, or opposition of a political party or political candidate, is not lawful for a tax exempt organization. This includes the use of telephones, faxes, email, mailing lists, offices, sanctuaries, and meeting rooms, however the law does allow free expression on political matters by individuals speaking for themselves, but that is outside of the scope of the church. Individual church members can speak or write for or donate to a particular candidate, but not in an official capacity, representing the church. They may go to campaign events on their own time and publically support or oppose someone, but they are speaking or writing in an individual capacity, and not for the church. Great care and effort must always be taken in communicating the actions and/or comments by someone that they are personal and are not intended to represent the views or official endorsement of the church.
We have read what churches and church members can and cannot do, so let’s summarize what’s permissible and not permissible according to IRS law. Churches cannot publically endorse or oppose any candidates or political party, either verbally or by any written or published venue. This includes endorsing any candidate from behind the pulpit. Churches cannot use their facilities or resources in support of any political candidate or in opposition to one. A tax-exempt church can engage in certain non-partisan, educational activities related to political elections such as candidate debates, voter registration initiatives, or other voter-education activities, but any of these activities must be carefully planned in advance and participants should be informed about what they can and cannot do in these activities. There is a lot at stake.
Should churches donate to political campaigns? No, because there are strict limits in regards to supporting or opposing any political candidate’s campaign. If you have any questions at all, play it on the safe side. There is more specific information available from IRS Publication 1828, pp. 8-9; FS-2006-17 about a church’s prohibitions and allowance. You can find these on the IRS website and in some cases, as downloadable PDF files. I strongly recommend that if your church is going to participate in any of the political process, whatever these activities entail, that each member of the group that will volunteer for such activities should be well versed in IRS laws concerning a church’s political campaign activities and what is allowed and not allowed by law for tax exempt organizations. Incidentally, this information is not intended to provide legal advice, or to address specific situations for you or your church and their activities. Information in this article was based upon the most recent IRS publications. It is strongly recommended that church boards or deacon boards review and approve a church’s activities, especially if it relates to a political campaign, and that these board members, as well as all of the participants, have a good, working knowledge of the tax laws and how such activities can endanger the church’s tax exempt status.
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren Church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Teaching Children the Gospel available on Amazon.