Download a printable PDF of the full report (23 pgs.)
Note: An updated version of this report is now available as Preaching Politics From the Pulpit.
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 here.
This 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 2008 edition of the guide updates versions previously published by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2004 and 2002. 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 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. 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 Forum takes no position in this or any other policy debate. The 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 Forum's overall mission is to deliver timely, impartial information 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.
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.
This report is in question-and-answer format. Use the menu below to go to a particular section of the report or to a specific question. A selected bibliography is available in the PDF version.
IRS Restrictions on Political Intervention and Lobbying
Voter Education and Outreach
Religious Organization Facilities and Publications
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