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 2006, states, “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.