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Pulpit politicking and the IRS

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–On Sunday, Sept. 28, a few dozen pastors across the United States endorsed or opposed political candidates from pulpits during their churches’ worship services. The coordinated effort apparently was designed to both call attention to and violate an IRS statute that forbids pastors from stumping for candidates from their pulpits.

One of the implied purposes of the pulpit politicking was an attempt to force the IRS’s hand. The hope of the participants is that the U.S. taxing authority will seek to punish one, or more, of the law-breaking pastors. The theory is that if that were to occur, it would allow a court challenge of federal government restrictions on political involvement by churches and pastors.

You may have applauded the pastors who participated in the recent “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” You may be appalled at the very thought of politics on parade during a worship service. Whatever your viewpoint, one thing is certain, there is much misunderstanding about what a church and pastor can and cannot do in reference to political campaigns.

Organizations that have been granted a 501(c)(3) tax status by the IRS — and that includes most churches — are not allowed to “participate in, or intervene in (including publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”

However, tax exempt organizations are allowed to expend “an insubstantial amount” of funds on advocating for or opposing specific legislation. In other words, where legislation, not candidacy, is concerned, a small portion of a tax exempt organization’s budget can be used to challenge or champion a political issue. However, what determines an “insubstantial amount” has never been clearly defined. As to candidates and campaigns, the prohibition is absolute.

Churches were not subjected to any such restrictions until 1954, when Congress approved an amendment by Texas Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson to prohibit tax-exempt organizations from engaging in any political activity. Varying accounts say Johnson drafted the legislation in response to certain tax-exempt entities giving support to his challenger in that year’s primary election. Regardless, the rules apply to all charities and churches, and each time it has revisited the issue, Congress has strengthened the ban.

Among the benefits of being a tax exempt organization is that the organization does not have to pay corporate income taxes and donations to the organization are tax deductible on federal income tax returns. However, violating the tax rules can place an organization in jeopardy of losing its tax exempt status.

So just what can a church and pastor do to insure that neither runs afoul of the IRS?

While the IRS does not allow a church to endorse or oppose a candidate, a pastor may. However, when a pastor supports or opposes a candidate and how he goes about it is crucial. If a pastor endorses a candidate during an official meeting of the church, does so in an official church publication or on church stationery, he will violate IRS rules pertaining to nonprofit organizations.

When personally endorsing a candidate, the pastor may state his affiliation with his church. However, this can only be for identification purposes. It must be understood that his endorsement is a personal opinion and does not constitute a church endorsement.

I recently received a mailing, in a church envelope and on church stationary, in which a retired pastor endorsed a local candidate for public office. This communication represents a clear violation of the rules for tax exempt organizations.

Additionally, a pastor — as a private citizen — may make financial contributions to candidates or political action campaigns. A church may not.

Pastors and churches may address moral and social issues until the cows come home, even those that have been politicized.

Non-partisan voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote programs also are allowed. Churches also are allowed to distribute voter guides, provided they are non-partisan, cover a broad range of issues (not just the issues deemed important to the church) and include all candidates’ responses.

A few years back, an organization offered voter guides to the church where I was pastor. Upon close inspection, the guide was found to be full of editorial statements that constituted an implicit endorsement of certain candidates. These guides violated the IRS rules for tax exempt organizations. I tossed them in the trash.

While there are rules with respect to political campaigns with respect to tax exempt status, there is more freedom than many people of faith believe. But it is also true that more care should be taken than other people of faith believe. In all cases, thoughtful consideration should be given.

While a pastor may not be able to endorse a candidate in the manner the advocates of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” desire, it is clear that a pastor can personally endorse a candidate for public office. However, just because you can do something does not mean you should.

I can vote for a candidate and not agree with all of his or her positions. You have no doubt heard someone say, “I’m going to hold my nose and vote for so-and-so.” Which, by the way, is what I will be doing come Election Day.

However, when you endorse someone, you are giving them your stamp of approval, if only tacitly, for all they stand for. I don’t currently know many politicians I am willing to that far out on a limb for. Do you?

Americans enjoy generous freedom in our churches, pulpits and the voting booth. Pray that God guides us to exercise those freedoms wisely.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs