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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.
See also the 2008 and 2004 editions of this publication.
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
7. When would an issue discussion violate the political campaign intervention
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
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
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
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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