September 28, 2004

Politics and the Pulpit 2004: A Guide to the Internal Revenue Restrictions on the Political Activity of Religious Organizations

Politics and the Pulpit

Note: An updated version of this report is now available as Politics and the Pulpit: 2008.

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 issues of interest to voters? Is a church or other house of worship legally permitted to register voters or issue voter guides? Answers to these and many other questions are contained in Politics and the Pulpit: A Guide to the Internal Revenue Restrictions on the Political Activity of Religious Organizations.

Politics and the Pulpit sets out in plain English the rules governing political activity that apply to non-profit organizations (including churches and other religious groups) that are exempt from taxation under section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The report was written by Deirdre Dessingue, Associate General Counsel of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Ms. Dessingue is a leading expert on the taxation of religious organizations, and she has written a straightforward and practical guide to the law on these matters. The report also 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 and certain other tax-exempt, non-profit organizations. In recent years, some have voiced strong opposition to these limits, especially for religious groups, arguing that they amount to an unfair abridgement of free speech. Others, including some religious leaders, have vigorously defended the rules, asserting that they correctly prevent churches from getting too deeply involved in partisan politics.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life takes no position in this debate. Instead, the Forum commissioned this publication in order to inform religious groups and others on the provisions and meaning of the law as it is currently written. Politics and the Pulpit fits perfectly into the Forum’s overall mission, which is to act as a clearinghouse of impartial information as well as a non-partisan facilitator of discussions on issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.

Politics and the Pulpit is published with the understanding that the 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.