Every election season, churches find themselves caught in the midst of questions about what is permissible when it comes to political candidates. The current tax law limits what a church may do if it wants to maintain its tax-exempt status. In short, churches must not endorse or oppose candidates for public office if they wish to avoid endangering their tax-exempt status.
As a tax-exempt organization, a church is subject to a federal law passed in 1954 (popularly known as the Johnson Amendment) prohibiting 501(c)(3) organizations from becoming engaged in any political campaign activity. The law prohibits non-profit organization from engaging in activities that “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.”.
The Johnson Amendment does not require a church to completely refrain from anything deemed “political.” For example, a church may engage in voter education practices—including providing forums for candidates to discuss their views—and may even distribute voter guides. But it must do so in a non-partisan fashion. The provision of a forum can’t be made in a way that is directly connected to official church functions, particularly if it shows bias in favor of (or against) a given candidate. Such bias might be shown by, for example, only inviting a favored candidate to the forum the church is holding, favoring one of the candidates in opening remarks at such a forum, or by doing political fundraising at the forum. Questions at the forum must be formulated and presented by an independent, nonpartisan panel, and must cover a wide range of issues, not just hot-button religious or political topics.
A church may also engage in advocacy in favor of or against issues but must be careful not to tie its advocacy to a particular candidate. In short, a church must avoid engaging in activities that directly endorse or oppose the campaign of any particular candidate for political office.
We know this area of the law can sometimes be confusing. Provident Law’s church and nonprofit attorneys are here to help answer questions and with establishing and crafting policies governing political activities. We recognize how essential tax-exempt status is for the maintenance and safeguarding of a church’s ongoing mission, and we stand ready to counsel and serve the churches of Arizona. Contact us to learn more.