Religion, Politics, and the Tax Code

The U. S. Tax Code allows donor tax deductions to religious organizations, but the deduction comes with conditions that require the ministries to limit political activities. The best known condition is the rule against involvement in political campaigns.

Voter Education and Get-Out-the-Vote

The IRS prohibits any voter education and registration effort that specifically favors one candidate or party.

Individual Activity by Leaders

As individuals, church leaders can express their political opinions; however, the tax code prohibits them from making political comments in publications and at functions that their ministry sponsors.

Official Candidate Appearances

When a ministry invites a candidate to speak, the IRS determines if the event is allowed within the rules of the tax code by asking:

  • Did the organization provide the same opportunity to participate to all candidates for the same position?
  • Did the organization indicate its support for or opposition to any of the candidates in any way?
  • Did any political fundraising occur?

When it invites several candidates for the same office to speak at a public event, the IRS asks other questions:

  • Did questions for the candidates come from an unbiased panel?
  • Did the discussion cover a broad range of issues of interest to the public?
  • Did all candidates have an equal opportunity to present their views?
  • Were candidates asked to agree or disagree with ministry-specific positions or statements?
  • Did a moderator comment on the questions or imply approval or disapproval of any candidate?

Unofficial Candidate Appearances

Ministries may invite political candidates to speak in certain situations: i.e., when those who hold a public office are experts in a non-political field or have led notable military, legal, or public service careers. A candidate also may personally choose to attend a ministry event open to the public. If the ministry introduces the candidate or asks the candidate to speak, the IRS determines if the activity fits the rules by asking questions similar to those mentioned previously.

Public Policy Positions

IRS regulations permit religious organizations to take positions on public policy issues that divide candidates. However, they must avoid taking a position that favors or opposes a candidate or party. A church or ministry can violate the regulations simply by showing a picture of the candidate, referring to a political party, or using facts unique to a candidate's platform or biography.

Business Activity

An organization may not sell or rent mailing lists, lease office space, or accept paid political advertising in a way that the tax code prohibits.

Websites

When a ministry posts something on a website that favors or opposes a candidate, the IRS considers it the same as other political statements a religious organization makes. When a church or ministry allows a link to another website, the IRS may hold it responsible for political statements others make on the linked site.

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