When election time rolls around, churches generally find themselves in something of a difficult spot. It’s not uncommon for a specific candidate to espouse policies that are more in line with the church’s teachings than those of another, and therefore the church may want to support that candidate’s run for office. This sometimes includes the desire to pass out campaign literature on church grounds.
However, churches must be cautious in this area. Federal tax law prohibits a church from supporting or opposing political candidates—if, that is, the church would like to maintain its status as a tax-exempt organization.
The Johnson Amendment, passed in 1954, prohibited organizations that qualify as tax exempt under 501(c)(3) of Title 26 of the US Code from taking part 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.”
While a church is permitted to do such things as engage in voter education practices, which may include providing forums for candidates to discuss their views, or even handing out voter guides, churches must do so in a way that is non-partisan.
Ignoring this portion of the code—whether in the heat of the campaign season or at any other time—can result in the loss of tax-exempt status.
Recently, legal scholars and advocacy groups have called into question the constitutionality of some of the restrictions in the Johnson Amendment and have pointed out that current Federal tax law can curtail the free exercise of religion and the free speech rights of religious organizations. There is, thus, a tension between current tax law and the Constitution. While churches must proceed with caution in this area, they should not give up their constitutional rights either.
Should you need help with campaign issues and your church’s constitutional rights, Provident Law’s nonprofit and church attorneys are here to help. We recognize how essential these organizations are to society, and how important it is that they be able to function as efficiently and authentically as possible without fear of loss of tax-exempt status. We stand ready to counsel and serve by providing broad transactional and general counsel services. Contact us to learn more.