With midterm elections just around the corner, political activity is rumbling towards a resounding crescendo. Included among this political chorale are voices from various elements of the faith community. The political hymn singing of faith groups has become one of the mainstays of the political season.
As a result, the Internal Revenue Service has pumped up the volume in terms of increased scrutiny of faith groups and their political activity. Churches and charities that operate under the section of the IRS code which provides for tax exemption (501c3) are prohibited by law from certain forms of political activity.
For many conservative Christian groups, these prohibitions are particularly worrisome. They are characterized by some religious leaders as violations of free speech and the free exercise of religious beliefs. In fact, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina annually introduces a bill titled “The Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act.” The thrust of the bill suggests that churches once had free speech in politics but somehow lost it.
But until the law changes, there are certain rules in place that govern what churches and charities can and cannot do politically. Violating these rules can result in financial penalties and even the loss of tax exemption.
Unfortunately, there is significant misunderstanding and disinformation about what the rules actually restrict and allow. For that reason, I thought it might be helpful to provide a brief summary. All of this information is available on the IRS Web site which is located at www.irs.gov.
First of all, and central to all that follows, churches and other charities operating under the 501c3 portion of the tax code cannot support or oppose political candidates.
Pastors, on the other hand, are allowed to personally support and even endorse candidates. However, they cannot do so using any resources of the church such as church letter head, newsletter, outdoor bulletin boards, and so forth. So long as it is clear that pastors or church leaders are speaking only on their own behalf, there is no restriction.
Additionally, churches can encourage their members to register and to vote. Churches are also allowed to speak out on public policy issues as long as such messages are not an attempt to support or oppose a candidate.
This is where the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., got into trouble two years ago. In the run up to the 2004 presidential election, a retired minister preached an anti-war sermon. The text of the sermon eventually found its way to the Los Angeles Times. The IRS is investigating the matter to determine if the sermon was an effort to oppose the candidacy of President Bush. If so, the church could face the loss of its tax exempt status.
Churches can also engage in lobbying for or against particular legislation, including ballot initiatives as long as such efforts do not occupy a substantial part of a church’s total activity. A good rule of thumb here is more than 5 percent of a church’s time and resources would be considered substantial.
In what is an interesting irony to all this, one of the reasons the IRS cites for increased scrutiny of the political activity of churches and other non-profits is concern for the viability of the whole non-profit enterprise. “The potential for charities, including churches, being used as arms of political campaigns and parties will erode the public’s confidence in these institutions.”
It would seem that the IRS is more concerned about the integrity of our faith communities than even some faith leaders appear to be.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.