by Bob Smietana
Internal Revenue Service rules about churches and politics are short, sweet, and controversial.
Churches and their pastors can talk about political issues all they want. But they can’t side with or help a specific candidate for office. That same ban is in place for all nonprofits, according to the IRS.
All are banned 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.”
In theory, that ban means, among other things, pastors should not endorse candidates from the pulpit.
In practice, these rules are rarely enforced. Pastors often endorse candidates and take sides in elections. But since the rules went into affect in 1954, only one church—The Church at Pierce Creek, in Binghampton, New York—has lost its tax-exemption, and that was only temporary.
The Church at Pierce Creek ran newspaper ads against Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign. In response, the IRS revoked the church’s tax-exempt letter. After a long court battle, the church, now known as The Landmark Church, regained its tax-exempt status.
Recently, IRS enforcement of the ban on church politicking has stalled over a legal technicality. IRS rules state that a “regional commissioner” has to authorize a church investigation. But the IRS eliminated that job title years ago—meaning there’s no one at the agency who can approve an investigation.
That’s not stopped dueling activists from trying to force the IRS into action.
Last year, more than 1,600 pastors preached sermons aimed at challenging the ban on pastors endorsing candidates as part of the “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” organized by the Scottsdale, Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom.
Organizers say the IRS should not limit what pastors can say in the pulpit. They want the agency to investigate churches for breaking the rules, so they can challenge the ban in court.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) also wants the IRS to act. But they believe churches and pastors should be barred from taking sides in elections, and the IRS is shirking its duty to investigate churches.
The group sued the IRS in 2012 to force the IRS into action. That suit was recently settled, after the IRS adopted new rules for investigating churches.
But the dispute over churches and politics is far from over.
Here are five things churches and pastors should know, in advance of the 2014 mid-term elections.
1. The IRS can’t investigate churches for endorsing candidates—yet.
The agency has adopted new rules for investigating churches as part of their settlement with the FFRF. That means they could act if a church violates the ban on endorsements. However, the agency is now in a conflict with Congress over its handling of the tax-exempt status of Tea Party groups and lost emails. That’s put its investigations of all charities on hold for now.
2. Church members don’t want to hear endorsements from the pulpit.
Want a quick way to turn off your congregation? Tell them who to vote for. A 2008 poll from Lifeway Research found only 5 percent of Americans believe pastors should endorse candidates from the pulpit. Eighty-seven percent give pulpit endorsements a thumbs-down.
A 2012 poll from Pew Research found two-thirds of Americans say churches should stay out of the endorsement business.
3. Pastors don’t like endorsing candidates either, at least in church.
A 2012 survey from Lifeway Research found almost 9 out of 10 Protestant senior pastors say sermons are no place for endorsements. An earlier Lifeway Research survey said only 3 percent of pastors had actually endorsed a candidate during a church service.
4. Preachers also want the IRS to leave their sermons alone.
A 2011 Lifeway Research survey found pastors oppose any attempt to censor their sermon content. Most (86 percent) disagree with this statement: “The government should regulate sermons by revoking a church’s tax exemption if its pastor approves of or criticizes candidates based on the church’s moral beliefs or theology.”
5. This issue will eventually end up in court.
Organizers of the Pulpit Freedom Sunday have no plans to give up their challenge to the ban on pulpit endorsements. Neither does the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
And a high-profile panel of nonprofit experts convened by the The Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations says the current rules are unworkable. Eventually, the courts will have to weigh in.
Resources for churches
- The IRS publishes a tax guide for churches and other religious groups, as well as offering an online course that details IRS rules for charities and politics.
- The Pew Forum publishes a guide called “Preaching Politics From the Pulpit.”
- The American Center for Law and Justice has a primer on the issues entitled “Churches, Free Speech, and the Regulations of the IRS Regarding Elections.”
- The Interfaith Alliance also has election year resources.