Tax Exempt and Politically Active?

Sojourners/Call to Renewal recently hosted a nationally televised candidates forum with the three leading Democratic presidential contenders. In order to host a forum that provided enough time for a thoughtful and substantive discussion of faith and values, we invited the declared Democratic candidates occupying the top polling positions. We entered into this territory very carefully—frequently consulting an attorney to guide us.

With the election season already on fast-forward, the Internal Revenue Service has again issued its guidance for section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, including churches. The bottom line is still that these organizations "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."

However, there are many ways that churches can and should become involved in the democratic process with nonpartisan activities. If your church or organization is planning electoral-related activities, it is always good to check with an attorney before proceeding. You can lose your tax-exempt status if you're not careful, appropriate, and discerning.

The IRS has several "thou shalt nots" when it comes to political involvement. Churches and other (c)(3) organizations are prohibited from making any direct or indirect contributions to candidates. You can't contribute money, but you also can't give free use of your mailing list, free advertising in a newsletter, the use of your building or facilities for campaign work, or the printing of campaign literature. You can't publicly endorse a candidate using organizational resources—from the pulpit, in a newsletter, in a press release, or at a church picnic.

Educating your congregation on issues with the goal of encouraging strenuous public debate is generally permissible, as long as it is genuinely presented in a nonpartisan manner. The issue message should not be framed in a way that encourages support of candidates who agree or opposition to those who don't. You can, for example, urge that people take candidates' positions on a variety of issues into account when they vote. But you should not urge people to vote solely on an issue that is hotly contested in the election. For instance, if one candidate is visibly opposed to the war in Iraq and another supports it, a message urging people to vote for the candidate who will end the war is not permissible, even if no candidates are named.

Nonpartisan voter registration and "get out the vote" efforts are a legitimate encouragement for people to become involved in the political process. But they shouldn't create the impression that you are registering people with the expectation that they will vote a certain way.

YOU MAY SPONSOR candidate forums like we did to explore candidates' views. However, the candidates must be treated equally, nothing can be said or done that expresses support or opposition to any candidate—including introductions and moderator comments—and there can be no campaign fundraising. You shouldn't ask candidates to agree or disagree with your organization's position on issues.

The IRS also notes that their rules are "not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals." Pastors and church members, leaders of organizations, and their members are free as individuals to endorse candidates, make personal campaign contributions, and work on campaigns on their own time. If those individuals make public comments, they must "clearly indicate that … comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization." If an organizational title is used, it must clearly note that it is for identification purposes only.

Sojourners/Call to Renewal plans to host a candidates forum in the fall with leading Republican presidential contenders coming together for a thoughtful, substantive discussion with religious leaders on faith, values, and poverty.

All of us should inform ourselves on candidates' positions on issues and prayerfully evaluate them based on a range of Christian ethics and values. All people of faith and conscience have a civic responsibility to deepen the conversation on faith and public life at all levels of society.

Duane Shank is senior policy adviser for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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