With the close of both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, the presidential campaigns will quickly shift to full-blown. Soon to follow will be more political ads, signs on billboards and in yards, social media explosions, and talk all over the world regarding this upcoming election.
During this political season, churches want to avoid jeopardizing their 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax status. A church is exempt from federal income taxation if it is organized and operated exclusively for religious purposes. No substantial part of its activities may carry on propaganda or otherwise attempt to influence legislation, and it may not participate in or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office. It is worth noting that never has there been more scrutiny in our country over churches and their tax-exempt status.
Many guidelines are readily available to churches* so they know what they can and cannot do politically, but here are five quick reminders:
- A church can have candidates speak, but to be fair, all candidates must be invited. After a church issues an invitation, It’s okay if only one candidate accepts, as long as the invitation was issued to all the candidates. The church may not favor a particular candidate, as that would be using the church to help a specific candidate, which is outside the church’s mission.
- Stressing the importance of citizens’ right to vote is great; just don’t endorse a specific candidate.
- Don’t take up an offering for a particular candidate. Individuals may support the candidate of their choosing if they desire to do so.
- Don’t get involved as a church in a campaign or lobbying. Getting involved as a church carries the possibility of your church losing its tax exemption.
- If your church is planning multiple election-related activities or events this political season, consult your local tax/legal counsel for review and advice.
Do your part to ensure that your church meets the legal criteria to keep from jeopardizing its tax exempt status.
*For example, see:
- “Churches, Pastors, and Politics” by Kevin Bauder
- Chapter 10 of The Business Side of Ministry by Michael Nolan
- “Jeopardizing Tax-Exempt Status” in the IRS’s Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organizations
Michael Nolan is CFO/treasurer and director of strategic ministry growth for the GARBC.