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Dos and Don’ts in an election season

Churches and religious organizations qualify for exemption from federal income tax, and are generally eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. However, churches may jeopardize or even lose this status during election season.

According to the IRS Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations, churches are among the tax-exempt organizations "prohibited from participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office."

But there are more "dos" than "don'ts" regarding churches' political activity. An activity may be prohibited if it is for the benefit or detriment of a candidate or is partisan.

Churches can:

  • Discuss issues, provided the discussion does not exhibit preferences for or against specific candidates.
  • Distribute voter-education materials and sponsor "get out the vote" campaigns.
  • Host a candidate if all other candidates are invited.
  • Serve as a polling place.
  • Invite a candidate in a non-official capacity, such as for a groundbreaking ceremony, provided the person is not introduced as a candidate, no mention is made of his or her candidacy and the event is not promoted as an appearance by "Candidate X."
  • Lobby for certain issues, provided the time spent in this endeavor is "insubstantial" compared to other church activities.

Churches cannot:

  • Openly take sides in an issue, specifically espousing or denouncing the views of any particular candidate.
  • Endorse a candidate;
  • Distribute materials biased toward or against a particular candidate, or distribute materials provided by a candidate or political party.
  • Raise money for a candidate or political party or contribute to a political campaign.
  • Clergy members may take sides for or against a candidate or issue if they are doing so as a private individual, not as a church representative. They may not use the pulpit, church publications or any other forum related to the church to declare their individual preferences.

Adapted from an Interpreter article written by Joey Butler, young adult content editor, United Methodist Communications.

More information:

Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations, Internal Revenue Service Publication 1828, download at www.irs.gov/eo or order by calling 800 829-3676.

IRS EO Update, a periodic newsletter with information for tax-exempt organizations and tax practitioners who represent them, visit www.irs.gov/eo and click on "EO Newsletter."