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Churches, clergy and politics and the IRS

Churches, clergy and politics and the IRS

This year seems to be one that has energized church members on all sides of issues and for and against candidates. Pew Forum has a new study on politics and the pulpit reveals how often church members hear about political issues and candidates at church and from their clergy. However, there are rules from the IRS about politics and maintaining your 501c3 status (non-profit).

As the calendar turned from spring to summer and the political season transitioned from the primaries to the general election campaign, many American churchgoers were hearing at least some discussion of social and political issues from the pulpits at their houses of worship, a new Pew Research Center survey finds. Religious liberty and homosexuality were chief among the issues they were hearing about, with four-in-ten saying they heard from clergy on each of these topics during the spring and early summer. Roughly three-in-ten say their clergy talked about abortion, similar to the share who heard about immigration. And one-in-five churchgoers reported hearing about the environment and economic inequality.

In the new survey, conducted online and by mail June 5-July 7 among a nationally representative sample of 4,602 adults, 40% of Americans reported attending religious services at least once or twice in the few months before the poll was conducted. Within this group, about two-thirds (64%) say they heard clergy at their church or other place of worship speak about at least one of the six social and political issues mentioned in the survey, with nearly half (46%) indicating that religious leaders had spoken out on multiple issues.

Fewer recent churchgoers (14%) say they heard their clergy speak directly in support of or against a specific presidential candidate in the months leading up to the survey. …

From Jonathan Merritt at The Atlantic

If you are unsure about what is allowed seek guidance from your Diocesan chancellor.

A summary of the IRS Guidelines is here.

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances.  For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.

On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.

A more complete guide is here. Go to page 7 and following to read examples of activities and whether or not they are permitted.

Essentially US citizens, whether ordained or not, still maintain their right of free speech but not when a statement can be interpreted as a statement on behalf of the church in favor of a particular candidate. Activities that promote voter participation and knowledge and information on issues from a variety of points of view are generally permitted.


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JoS. S. Laughon

It would be odd if we were to be salt and light yet did not speak on unjust wars, the unborn, the poor or stewardship.

Gregory Orloff

Nothing in the IRS rules prohibits religious groups from speaking of any such things, which are regularly spoken of, with clarity, conviction and passion, from the pulpit of my local Episcopal church. But they do wisely prohibit religious organizations from campaigning on behalf of any one candidate or party — you know, “X is the only real Christian choice come Election Day” or “If you don’t vote for the Y Party, you’ll fry in eternal hellfire forever.” But avoiding such cult of personality and crass partisanship ought to be second nature to Christians, with or without IRS rules. After all, our own Bible tells us: “Do not put your trust in rulers, in mortals, who are powerless to save…” (Psalm 146:3).

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