Politicians and political organizations are always looking for ways to get their message in front of as many people as possible. Churches, with their reliable audiences and shared values, can be seen as attractive venues for promoting causes and candidates. But getting too involved with politics can risk a church’s status as a tax-exempt nonprofit. Before hosting a political speaker it’s important for church leaders to understand the risks.
A church’s tax-exempt status is a function of federal tax law. Among other things, it allows donors to a church to have confidence that they are giving to an organization that qualifies for exemption from federal income tax. By definition a 501(c)(3) organization is one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” 26 U.S.C. § 501(c)(3). A church that breaches this rule can be stripped of its status as a charity and forced to pay income tax—in short, its very existence can be threatened.
The practical application of the ban on political activity is quite complex. The official IRS guidance indicates that a church may, under the right circumstances, invite political candidates to speak at events, whether as candidates or in their individual capacities. To determine if inviting such a speaker creates “participation” in a campaign, the IRS will examine the facts and circumstances of the event, with consideration of factors such as these:
- Did the church provide equal opportunity to various candidates seeking the same political office?
- Did the church formally (such as through statements by a minister) indicate its support for or against a specific candidate?
- Was political fundraising conducted at the church?
The “equal opportunity” rule should give many churches pause before they invite political speakers. The same guidance explains that different candidates must be given the opportunity to speak at the same event, or at an event of substantially similar character, for the offer to be deemed “equal.” If one speaker is invited to address the entire congregation during Sunday service, while another is offered a chance to speak at an unusual time or in a smaller space, the church may not be meeting its equal opportunity requirements.
The Church Law Center of California helps religious and secular nonprofits meet their compliance obligations. If your church is thinking about hosting a political speaker, please talk to us first to verify that the event will not cause unforeseen tax problems. Call us at (949) 689-0437 or reach out to us through our contact page.