The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations
Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited 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. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.
On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.
The Internal Revenue Service provides resources to exempt organizations and the public to help them understand the prohibition. As part of its examination program, the IRS also monitors whether organizations are complying with the prohibition.
Emphasis is mine.
Generally speaking churches and religious organizations are registered as tax exempt with the IRS under the 501(c)(3) charitable exemption. Therefore, under the guidance of IRS regulations, churches and religious organizations may not make “public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office…”
But they do… and they do it regularly…. And the IRS seldom acts on the violations.
The IRS almost never revokes the tax exempt status of churches who blatantly violate this law. Cases where action is take are exceedingly rare and SCOTUS has yet to address this issue at all. The District Court for the District of Columbia took a stand in Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, finding that the IRS could revoke the tax-exempt status of a religious organization that bought and published a newspaper ad in the New York Times and the Washington Post which specifically and clearly took a stand against a political candidate.
The ad read, “Bill Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws…” and concluded with “How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?” The sponsoring church was named at the bottom of the page was, along with an invitation to make a “tax-deductible donation” to pay for the advertisement. From my reading this is the only case where any religious 501(c)(3) has ever been revoked and upheld.
Americans United has regularly challenged such activities, and they are doing it again in Missouri. Our friend Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mars) got some from-the-pulpit support by the Missouri Baptist Association. Americans United has my support. Our country was built on a foundation of freedom for all and the separation of religion and state. The religious right dominionists are like vermin forever trying to burrow into the larder. If we keep pecking away at it maybe we can get this rat back in its cage. Only time will tell.