by Ivy Scarborough | November 4th, 2016

Questions related to political activity and churches, ministries, and pastors are common. But clear answers seem rare. Here we hope to remedy that by providing some clear guidelines as to what a church, pastor, or any 501c3 nonprofit may and may not do.

     Any 501(c)(3) (e.g., church or ministry) is prohibited from engaging in political activity by the Internal Revenue Code. Violation of this prohibition on political activity may lead the IRS to refuse to grant or to revoke 501(c)(3) status, though the latter is especially rare. The IRS may also impose excise taxes on the political activity of the organization and on those managers involved in and/or are aware of the activity.

     That a political bias exists within the IRS is certainly now unquestionable, and earlier penalties typically have focused on conservative organizations, while ignoring breaches of these rules by liberal or left-leaning organizations. The exposure of this bias in recent years has hopefully inhibited IRS officials from continuing the practice. But the ultimate protection from IRS penalties can be found in knowing what your 501c3 may and may not do.

          The IRS defines “political activity” as any partisan activity that supports or opposes political candidates or political parties. But how does that work in the “real world?”


What a Church may NOT do:

  • Make either monetary or in-kind contributions.

  • Issue a statement that supports or opposes a candidate for public office.

  • Distribute a partisan communication prepared by a third party.

  • Support specific candidates or parties in races for elected office, including:

                1)  Support or oppose a declared candidate or third party movements;

2)  Conduct efforts to “draft” someone to run;

3)  Conduct exploratory advance work.

  • Endorse a candidate or contribute to a campaign with money or time:

  o Members can, of course, donate or volunteer on their own time.

  • Send partisan political communications to their members or employees telling them how to vote.

  • Sponsor joint fundraising events or solicitations with candidates or political groups.

  • Directly approach candidates and ask them to endorse your organization’s agenda.

  • Post information on its website opposing or supporting a candidate.

  • Establish a link on its website to another website opposing or supporting a candidate.

  • Provide mailing lists to only one candidate.


What a Church MAY do:

  • Engage in limited lobbying if related to issues that are part of the church’s purposes.

    • Standing against abortion and homosexual marriage would fall under the umbrella of most churches purposes, for example.

  • Conduct non-partisan public education. Conduct Get Out The Vote

  • Prepare and disseminate questionnaires that do not imply support of a candidate.

  • Publish legislative scorecards if not impliedly endorsing one candidate.

  • Engage in issue advocacy as long as not intended to intervene in an election.

  • Sponsor candidate debates as long as all qualified candidates are invited, and an independent panel prepares the questions.

  • Sponsor appearances by candidates as long as all qualified candidates are invited and event promotions clearly indicate that no official church support for any candidate should be inferred.

  • A candidate or official can be invited without issuing other invitations as long as event promotions make clear the event is neither partisan nor a campaign appearance.

What May Individual Members or the Pastor of a Church do and not do?

  • If not appearing on behalf of the Church, great First Amendment latitude is available to individuals to speak and act on behalf of a candidate as long as they do this on their own time and without using the name or resources of the Church.

Best practice is for churches to establish a compliance strategy, utilizing these guidelines, and train key individuals in it. Our office can assist if needed.


Ivy Scarborough, Attorney

P.O. BOX 10021

Jackson, TN 38308


FAX: 731-784-1636


About Ivy Scarborough

Ivy Scarborough is a writer, commentator, former adjunct professor, television, radio and print commentator, radio program host, professional mediator, and lawyer.

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