Every Christian can be a viable and influential force in society. Churches and pastors can, as well, while still operating within the constraints of the U.S. tax code.
There is much that churches (and ministers) can do without any threat of jeopardizing their tax- exempt status. And, the Alliance Defending Freedom (AFA) annually enlists pastors to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday in an effort to force the IRS to discontinue the use of the tax code to abridge the First Amendment rights of pastors and churches. Of course, any church or other organizations can also forego the benefits of tax exemption in order to participate unreservedly in advocacy for issues and candidates.
Taking a stand on social issues, educating your congregation, calling them to action, and exerting grass-roots pressure on officials are all well within the law for churches as tax-exempt organizations. Pastors may even use the pulpit to take a stand on specific legislation, issues, or acts of government. The only place where limits have been set is with specific regard to campaigns and elections. And even here a great deal can be done, more than most churches realize!
Below is a brief outline of “dos and don’ts” for churches and pastors at election time, based on requirements by the Federal Election Campaign Act and Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
The following are general guidelines. It is always a good idea to seek legal advice as you make specific plans for your church.
What Churches May Do
- Conduct non-partisan voter registration/education drives.
- Host candidate forums where all are invited and treated impartially.
- Distribute voting records and candidate surveys in compliance with the neutrality rules set forth by the IRS.
- Rent a church mailing list (at market value) to a candidate.
- Publish an ad in the church bulletin for all who request, as long as the ad is purchased at the regular rate for such ads.
- Publish news stories on political candidates, campaigns, and third-party endorsements of candidates.
- Invite a political candidate to attend a church service or meeting. Should your church invite a candidate to church service, remember that other candidates for the office, regardless of party, should be given the same opportunity if they request it.
- Contribute or expend up to 5% of its time or funds in any fiscal year to grassroots lobbying efforts, including contributing to ballot initiative campaigns.
What Churches May Not Do
- Endorse political candidates or contribute to political candidates or political action committees.
- Participate in fund-raising projects for political candidates.
- Make an outright donation of a mailing list to a political candidate.
- Sell a political ad at a discount rate if no other advertisers are offered discounts.
- Distribute candidate political statements.
- Pay to attend a caucus for a state or national political convention.
A Special Note About Clergy
As private citizens, pastors have the same rights as all Americans. They may take a stand on a political campaign and even endorse candidates. However, a pastor should always make it clear that any candidate-oriented efforts are those of a private citizen and not made on behalf of the church.
Church funds must also be kept separate from such political campaign activities. Churches and pastors with any questions should contact Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) regarding its Pulpit Freedom Sunday initiative.
Note: These resources are provided as general guides and are not intended to be substituted for legal advice regarding any particular situation.