By Sue Ella Deadwyler
As long as a church is operating and functioning as an organized church body, it is automatically exempt from paying taxes to the IRS. But, in the past, many pastors and churches have assumed they could not be politically active and keep their tax-exempt status.
However, churches can conduct non-partisan voter registration, voter identification, and “get-out-the-vote” drives. Churches can provide church members with petitions and educational materials about legislation and critical issues. Churches can discuss church doctrine that applies to politics or legislation or candidates running for office.
Churches can introduce candidates and allow them to speak to the congregation, as long as all candidates for that office have the same opportunity. Churches can have candidate forums if they invite all of the candidates and they can lobby for or against specific legislation. Churches can support or oppose judges or cabinet officials. They can spend money on referendums and rent church member contact lists to lobbying groups that support or oppose local, state, or federal legislation or constitutional amendments.
Although legally acceptable political action for churches is extensive, there are prohibitions. To avoid challenges to tax exempt status, pastors and church members cannot endorse a candidate or use the church name on distributed material that endorses a particular candidate. They cannot contribute money in the name of the church or the pastor, or use the pulpit as a platform to solicit funds, or create a church committee to make “in kind” contributions, such as resources or services, to a candidate, political party or political action committee.
Mat Staver, a former pastor and co-founder of Liberty Counsel, concurrently serves as Dean of Liberty University School of Law. He, also, is a leading constitutional attorney who wrote and published in 2008 an extensive paper entitled, “What May Pastors and Churches Do?”
In his paper, Mr. Staver explained that pastors and churches may, without jeopardizing their exemption, preach on biblical, moral, and social issues, including homosexuality and abortion. Pastors can urge the congregation to register, get involved in the political process, and vote. Pastors can acknowledge candidates who attend the church service and, personally, support or oppose them, as well as personally contribute to and work for them. A pastor’s name may be in a published ad or letter signifying the pastor’s endorsement, if the name is accompanied with a statement that the title and affiliation are used for identification purposes only.
Currently, it’s critical that churches and pastors become politically involved and vote, without fail. Otherwise, biblical principles and Christian influence will disappear from government and culture will continue to decay.