During every election cycle, many religious congregations find themselves wondering what role, if any, they can play in the political process. Can a minister, rabbi, imam or other member of the clergy endorse a candidate from the pulpit or speak on political issues of interest to voters? Is a church or other house of worship legally permitted to register voters or distribute voter guides? Answers to these and many other questions are contained in this guide.
The guide sets out in plain English the rules governing political activity that apply to nonprofit organizations (including churches and other religious groups) that are exempt from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The 2012 edition of the guide updates versions published by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2002, 2004 and 2008. The original report was written by Deirdre Dessingue, associate general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a leading expert on the taxation of religious organizations. The latest edition of the guide has been vetted by a number of other prominent legal experts in this field.
The current rules have been in place since 1954, when Congress amended the Internal Revenue Code to impose limits on the political activities of religious groups and certain other tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. In recent years, some have voiced strong opposition to these limits, especially as they are applied to religious groups, arguing that they amount to an unfair abridgement of free speech. Indeed, since 2008, the conservative Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund) has organized Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a date on which the group encourages pastors to speak out on election-related issues.1 Others, including some religious leaders, have vigorously defended the Internal Revenue Code rules, asserting that they correctly prevent churches from getting too deeply involved in partisan politics.
The Pew Forum takes no position in this or any other policy debate. The Pew Forum commissioned this publication solely to better inform religious groups and others on the provisions and meaning of the law as it is currently written. The Pew Forum’s overall mission is to deliver timely, impartial information on issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.
“Preaching Politics From the Pulpit” is published with the understanding that the Pew Forum is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional advice. If legal advice or other professional assistance is required, the services of a qualified professional should be sought.
Note: Throughout this document, the term “churches” refers to churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and other religious congregations. The term “religious organizations” has a broader meaning, including both churches and other types of religious organizations that are exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
1. Where do the restrictions on religious organizations’ participation in the political process come from?
2. Has this prohibition on political campaign intervention always been part of the Internal Revenue Code?
3. Are religious organizations singled out by the political campaign intervention prohibition in the Internal Revenue Code?
4. Doesn’t the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protect the right of religious organizations to engage in political activity?
IRS Restrictions on Political Intervention and Lobbying
5. What political activities are prohibited under the Internal Revenue Code?
6. Must religious organizations restrict their discussion of issues during election campaign periods?
7. When would an issue discussion violate the political campaign intervention prohibition?
8. Are religious organizations permitted to engage in lobbying activities?
9. Are religious organizations permitted to participate in referenda, constitutional amendments and similar ballot initiatives?
10. What are the consequences if a religious organization engages in excessive lobbying?
11. Does the political campaign intervention prohibition apply to the political activities of clergy and other religious leaders?
12. When are the political activities of clergy or other religious leaders attributed to their religious organizations?
13. Who is considered a candidate?
14. What rules apply with respect to candidates for non-elective office?
15. May candidates appear in pulpits during worship services?
16. What if the candidate appears in a noncandidate capacity?
17. What if the candidate is a member of the clergy?
Voter Education and Outreach
18. May religious organizations become involved in voter education?
19. May religious organizations publish or distribute voter guides?
20. Why must a broad range of issues be covered in voter education materials?
21. May religious organizations publish or distribute legislators’ voting records?
22. May religious organizations distribute voter education materials prepared by a candidate, political party or PAC?
23. May religious organizations sponsor candidate forums?
24. May religious organizations conduct voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives?
Religious Organization Facilities and Publications
25. May the facilities of religious organizations be used for civic or political events?
26. Do special rules apply to websites belonging to religious organizations?
27. Do links to candidate-related materials constitute political campaign intervention?
28. May religious organizations sell paid political advertising in their publications?
29. May a religious organization sell or rent its mailing list to a candidate, political party or PAC?
30. What are the penalties if a religious organization violates the political campaign intervention prohibition?
31. Does the IRS target churches for enforcement of the political campaign intervention prohibition?
1 The Alliance Defending Freedom says its Pulpit Freedom Sunday initiative is designed to provoke a response from the IRS that would permit a constitutional challenge to the IRS regulations. See http://www.speakupmovement.org/church/LearnMore/details/4702. To date, the IRS has not taken any formal action against participating pastors, and no legal challenge has been filed. (return to text)
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