Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for
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A lot of Churches and pastors behave as if the
IRS just can’t wait to take their tax exemption away, and that the slightest
misstep of the Church will bring the IRS knocking at the door before the Church
service is over. In particular, when elections roll around, pastors get the idea
that the prohibition on political activity means that they can’t even mention
politics, or can’t talk about elections, or can’t discuss the issues that
candidates are debating.
The IRS vigorously asserts the right of
Churches to discuss issues, even when those issues are “political issues.” Were
the IRS not to assert that, it would have to be shut down, because it would be
in direct violation of the Constitution’s provisions of freedom of speech and
freedom of religion.
Moreover, it is only certain types of
political activity that are prohibited by the IRS guidelines for Churches.
Specifically, the Church may not support or oppose a candidate, either by means
of endorsements or financial contributions. But the field is wide open for other
activities related to elections. The IRS document FS-2006-17, issued in February
“Under federal tax law, section 501(c)(3)
organizations may take positions on public policy issues, including issues that
divide candidates in an election for public office….Section 501(c)(3)
organizations are permitted to conduct certain voter education activities
(including the presentation of public forums and the publication of voter
education guides) if they are carried out in a non-partisan manner.
In addition, section 501(c)(3) organizations may encourage people to participate
in the electoral process through voter registration and get-out-the-vote
drives, conducted in a non-partisan manner… Depending on the facts and
circumstances, an organization may invite political candidates to speak at its
events without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status. Political candidates may be
invited in their capacity as candidates, or in their individual capacity (not as
a candidate). Candidates may also appear without an invitation at
organization events that are open to the public.”
The IRS also makes it clear that those who
head up tax-exempt organizations, including clergy, don’t lose their rights of
citizenship. They state, “The political campaign intervention prohibition is not
intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of
organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals. Nor are leaders
prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy.”
There are more details to these guidelines,
and you can read them all at www.PoliticalResponsibility.org.
The number of Churches that have lost their tax exemption for engaging in the
activities mentioned above is ZERO. I even know of organizations that, having
had to pay extra taxes for having crossed the line into political intervention,
asked for a refund from the IRS and actually obtained the refund, because the
IRS did not want to get into a dispute about the meaning of its guidelines!
Some people try to be more Catholic than the
Pope, and more tax-observant than the IRS. But it would be nice if such people
would avoid imposing their overly-restrictive mentality on the rest of us.