Pastors, Pulpits, and Politics
Specifically, all Christians should understand the gravity of the decisions ahead and recognize the value of voting based on our convictions. Pastors should be allowed to promote and encourage their congregation to vote based on their convictions. However, we must also recognize the limitations and restrictions placed on churches, pastors and staff when dealing with politics within the church. The Christian Law Association attorneys have highlighted six areas in which the IRS political campaign intervention targets that are considered violations and should be avoided.
First, churches must not distribute voters' guides that encourage readers to vote for particular candidates. However, a church may distribute neutral voter information materials stating the positions of the candidates for public office on the issues of the campaign. Furthermore, a church may conduct non-partisan voter registration programs and get-out-the-vote campaigns.
Second, churches must not use its website or links to another website to endorse or oppose a candidate. This same restriction extends to and prohibits leaders from making partisan comments in official ministry publications. The church may rent its mailing list to candidates for public office, but the list must be made available to all candidates for that public office on the same terms and at the same prices.
Third, pastors must not use the pulpit to endorse or oppose a particular candidate. The prohibitions do not restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of ministries speaking for themselves, as individuals. A pastor may grant the use of his name in support of a candidate and may include title and church affiliation but should include the following disclaimer: "Title and affiliation for identification purposes only." Pastors should always make it very clear that their statements or endorsement is in their individual capacity and not intended to reflect the views of the ministry.
Fourth, churches cannot make contributions to a candidate's political campaign. The church cannot engage in fundraising for candidates for public office or allow an offering to be taken for a particular candidate. This would include "in-kind" contributions or expenditures, such as use of church facilities and providing of volunteers from the church.
Fifth, churches may not place signs on the church property that show support for a particular candidate. Churches are often used as a voting location but the restriction on signs would still apply to the church.
Sixth, churches may not give improper preferential treatment to certain candidates by permitting them to speak at functions. A candidate for public office may be introduced to the congregation during a service and may preach as long as it is unrelated to his campaign and he does not solicit volunteers or financial support. A church may allow a candidate to appear at a service or event for campaign purposes if all candidates for that elective office are afforded the same opportunity.
These restrictions and prohibitions are governed by the Internal Revenue Code, Statute 501(c)(3) and apply to all campaigns (federal, state, county, city, town, village, or borough level). It also includes judicial elections, even if the candidates are required to run on a non-partisan basis. Violations of these prohibitions may result in revocation of tax-exempt status, imposition of excise taxes, or both.
If you have questions about your rights as a pastor or church, our team of attorneys at the Christian Law Association stands ready to inform and protect your church or ministry. For further information, please contact our legal missionaries at our new number 1.888.CLA.1969.
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