Keeping It Legal

By Dwayne Hastings
Oct 5, 2012

Every election year, there is a fair bit of confusion over what churches and pastors are allowed to do. Some of that confusion and concern is perpetuated by groups who don’t want people of faith to be active in the nation’s civic affairs. While Congress voted way back in 1954 to limit what political activities organizations registered under section 501( c )3 of the U.S. tax code could engage in, churches and pastors are not totally hamstrung.

May a church engage in voter registration activities, as long the event does not promote a single candidate or political party?

Yes, a church may engage in voter registration activities, as long the event does not promote a single candidate or political party.

Can a church’s pastor may endorse a candidate for office during a worship service, as long as the pastor is not standing behind the pulpit?

A church’s pastor may NOT endorse a candidate for office during a worship service, whether he is not standing behind the pulpit or splashing about in the baptistery. According to the IRS, it is technically legal for a pastor to support a candidate as a private citizen.

Can a church may contribute funds directly to political candidates, if the church establishes a political committee of only laypeople and if the candidates’ views on the issues line up with Scripture?

A church may NOT contribute funds directly or indirectly to political candidates, regardless of whether or not the church establishes a political committee of only laypeople or the candidate’s views line up with Scripture—even if the candidate is a good guy!

May a church’s pastor preach on moral and social issues and encourage civic involvement in an election year?

A church’s pastor may preach on moral and social issues and encourage civic involvement in an election year, in a non-election year, and even in a leap year. It is advisable for a pastor to address moral and ethical issues on a regular basis and not just during campaign season.

Is it true that a church may sponsor a forum for political candidates if each candidate is invited and is provided equal opportunity to speak?

A church may sponsor a forum for political candidates if each candidate is invited and is provided equal opportunity to speak, even if some of the candidates decline to attend.

Is it permissible for a church’s newsletter to contain an editorial in which the pastor or a staff member endorses or opposes a candidate running for office, if the newsletter is printed at a site other than the church’s office?

A church’s newsletter may NOT contain an editorial in which the pastor or a staff member endorses or opposes a candidate running for office. It doesn’t matter where the newsletter is printed.

Can a church distribute a guide that compares the positions of the presidential candidates, if the guide is nonpartisan and avoids any analysis or editorial comment?

A church may distribute a guide that compares the positions of the presidential candidates. It is important the guide avoid any analysis or editorial comment and is a fair and accurate representation of each candidate’s views. We recommend our guide, available this fall, which will compare the platforms of the two major parties—issue by issue. The ERLC’s Party Platform Comparison Guide (available at ivotevalues.com) can be safely distributed within a church setting.

Is it alright if a pastor grants a political candidate the right to use his name and image in his campaign materials, as long as the pastor doesn’t personally hand out the materials?

This is a tricky question. It is our belief that a pastor should NOT grant a political candidate the right to use his name and image in his campaign materials. It doesn’t matter that the pastor isn’t personally handing out the materials or that the picture he gave the candidate’s campaign staff was from his high school yearbook. The IRS does allow a pastor or other church leader to support a candidate if he or she is acting as a private citizen. Any questions in this area (or any other related to the 501©3 tax status should be directed to professional legal counsel.)

Can a church may publicly support or oppose legislation, including leading petition drives, on issues that directly relate to the work and ministry of the church?

A church may publicly support or oppose legislation, including leading petition drives, on issues that directly relate to the work and ministry of the church.

It is permissible for a church to make in-kind and independent expenditures for or against political candidates, as long as church members vote to do so in a properly called business meeting?

No. A church may NOT make in-kind and independent expenditures for or against political candidates, whether church members vote to do so or not.

Final thoughts:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501 ( c ) 3 organizations (including registered places of worship) 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.”

Simply because some activities are forbidden doesn’t mean the church and its members are shut out from the political process. Quite the contrary, private individuals have no restrictions upon their behavior in the electoral process and churches are free to engage in a multitude of nonpartisan election-related activities, including voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives.

Visit iVoteValues.com for more information. The Internal Revenue Service’s Web site has helpful information on these matters.

Remember that this page should not be construed as providing legal advice. The information on this page is offered only as a general guideline. The ERLC is not in a position to provide legal counsel.

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