Virginia is in the middle of a close election race for governor, pitting Democrat Terry McAuliffe against Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin. Election Day is November 2 in the Old Dominion, but early voting in the state has already begun. Recent election-related events there raise the question: Just what can churches do at election time, since IRS rules prohibit charitable organizations 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.
Various news sources are reporting that a video of Vice President Kamala Harris endorsing McAuliffe began playing in over 300 churches on October 17. Stacey Abrams, a former Democrat candidate for Georgia governor in 2018 showed up in person at a Norfolk church last Sunday to urge those in attendance to vote for McAuliffe.
Campaign signs for Youngkin flanked the entrance to a church near Big Stone Gap, Virginia during a church rally in July focused on voter registration and participation, while his image appeared on a projection screen inside the church.
The events in Virginia are nothing new, nor are they related to one political party. But given the IRS rules about mixing politics with church activities, what are the limits and when do churches cross the line into prohibited activities that pose a risk to their 501(c)(3) status?
Specifically with regard to candidates, legal organizations such as the National Center for Life and Liberty offer several guidelines:
- As a pastor, you have the right to speak personally concerning elections and particular candidates. Your church’s 501(c)(3) status does not require you to relinquish your personal freedom of speech in these areas.
- Your church may educate congregants, helping them understand what individual candidates believe about various issues, including distributing voting guides that score the majority of candidates on the issues.
- You may ask particular candidates to speak at your church, to give their testimony or present themselves as a candidate, as long as an official endorsement from the church does not follow the appearance.
- Pastors may advocate a certain position from the pulpit on relevant issues.
The IRS cautions that although general voter education or registration activities by a church are perfectly fine, those should be conducted without evidence of bias that:
- Would favor one candidate over another;
- Oppose a candidate in some manner; or
- Have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates.
When inviting candidates to speak at a church, the IRS lists several factors it looks at to determine whether the church has crossed a line into political intervention:
- Whether the church provides an equal opportunity to the political candidates seeking the same office;
- Whether the church indicates any support of or opposition to the candidates;
- Whether any political fundraising occurs;
- Whether the individual is chosen to speak solely for reasons other than candidacy for public office;
- Whether the organization maintains a nonpartisan atmosphere on the premises or at the event where the candidate is present; and
- Whether the organization clearly indicates the capacity in which the candidate is appearing and does not mention the individual’s political candidacy or the upcoming election in the communications announcing the candidate’s attendance at the event.
The penalty for violating IRS rules regarding political intervention can be the suspension or revocation of a church’s 501(c)(3) designation. That would mean that donors to the church would no longer be able to claim those donations as charitable tax deductions on their individual tax returns.
That ultimate penalty – revocation of a church’s tax exemption due to political intervention – although available, is only rarely invoked. The only time it happened was in 1992, when the IRS revoked the tax exempt status of a church in Binghamton, New York. The church had placed a full-page advertisement in USA Today and The Washington Times just prior to Election Day objecting to the moral character of then-candidate for President of the United States, Bill Clinton, and asked “How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?” The IRS’s action was later upheld by a federal court.
But even that revocation was “more symbolic than substantial,” as a federal appeals court noted when it reviewed the case, because of the unique treatment of churches in the tax code. Still, churches need to exercise wisdom in this area.
In summary, IRS rules for 501(c)(3) charitable organizations and election-related activities are complicated and churches and their pastors are well advised to seek legal help in understanding and navigating them.
Here are some resources for churches and pastors who want to know more about this issue:
Alliance Defending Freedom: Pastors, Churches & Politics: 5 Things to Know.
First Liberty Institute: Pastors and Politics: Two Things Pastors Can’t Do During Election Season … And Everything They Can.
Liberty Counsel: Pastors, Churches and Politics: What May Pastors and Churches Do?
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