Amidst the final throes of the current political season, the American electorate is exposed to a bombast of advocacy. Candidates, issues, ballot initiatives… all beg for an attentive ear. Here in the South, the influences of church and state often overlap. What many church leaders and congregations fail to acknowledge is the shaky legal ground on which political activism rests, when done from the pulpit.
Specifically, most churches are organized under the Internal Revenue Service code 501 (c)(3). To qualify for this tax-exempt status, the IRS requires that an organization “must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, it may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.
In other words, churches wishing to maintain their tax-exempt status cannot legally advocate for particular candidates or political causes. Even so, they do it every day.
The IRS goes further to clarify its position on the matter by saying that “organizations are absolutely prohibited 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. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”
It should be noted that while a church may file for Section 501(c)(3) status, it is not required to do so in order to be tax-exempt. A church may simply hold itself out as a church and claim tax-exempt status pursuant to Section 508(c).
Courts have repeatedly upheld the prohibition in part and in total. One of the most notable decisions came in the case of Branch Ministries Inc. versus Rossotti. In this case, courts upheld the constitutionality of the ban on political activity. The court rejected the plaintiff church’s allegations that it was being selectively prosecuted because of its conservative views and that its First Amendment right to free speech was being infringed. At central issue in this case was whether the church could simultaneously enjoy tax exempt status while at the same time paying for whole-page newspaper ads against particular candidates. The court found that it could not and that to do so would effectively fund partisan political speech at the taxpayers’ expense.
We understand that faith plays an important role in the lives of many Americans, Southerners in particular. Even so, we heartily concur with the court’s position in this matter. While we vigorously defend the right of churches, their leaders and congregants to have free speech, with equal vigor, we are opposed to the American taxpayer footing the bill for it.
Churches have historically been important forums for discussion and debate of social, legal and political issues. We hope that never changes, but before churches embark on partisan crusades, they should think long and hard about the consequences for their tax exempt status. If their zeal in proffering a given political viewpoint is that central to their institutional mandate, then surrendering their tax exemption should come as a small price to pay.