My Momma always told me never talk about religion or politics - at least someone's momma told me that. Here we are about to talk about both in one post. The political activity of churches has been in the news a lot this year since President Trump allegedly repealed the Johnson Amendment that prohibited 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations from politicking from the pulpit. Did you know that isn't exactly true? The President doesn't have the authority to change congressional legislation. By executive order, he changed the way it is to be interpreted by the IRS. As has been proven time and time again over the last several administrations, with the stroke of a pen that interpretation can again be changed. Here are some reasons to have your Church General Counsel review your political activity policy.
- A written policy on employee political activity is wise.
First of all, a written policy on employee political activity is wise. Do you want your staff or your church to support a particular party or candidate from the pulpit? Does such conduct align with the vision and mission of your church? Is it ok for your staff members to run for office? Can church funds be used for political purposes? What about church resources - could they be used on behalf of a political candidate? Is it ok for church staff to use church time to lobby or campaign? These are all questions which your personnel committee, elders, and/or senior pastors need to answer and put in writing so that everyone is aligned with the direction of church leadership.
Secondly, it is important that you have a political activity policy that is flexible and can be changed quickly. Right now, the Executive Order on the Johnson Amendment prohibits the IRS from finding a church guilty of violating the Johnson Amendment if it could not also find a secular institution guilty. How that would play out if litigated is far from certain since churches have a much bigger pulpit (pun intended) than most 501(c)(3) organizations. Nevertheless, this is just an executive order that cannot overturn congressional legislation. As quickly as it was signed by President Trump, it could be revoked by Congress, the courts (if challenged), or a subsequent president. As such, you need the ability to quickly update, disseminate, and educate others on a policy that aligns with the law as it changes. Managing Attorney Josh Bryant stands ready to help your church comply with this law.
Third, churches need to be fully informed of the repercussions of violating IRS regulations for 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations. If prosecuted, a church could lose its tax exempt status. That means that every donation made to your church is no longer deductible by your donors. It could hurt your annual giving and ultimately shut the doors to your church. Now, we don't want to be alarmists, and to be fair this is something that has not been tested. However, the law clearly states that you could lose your tax exempt status if found guilty of violating this law. Churches are wise to render unto Caesar in this regard.
Finally, your church needs to understand that there is a difference between endorsement of a particular candidate or party and issue advocacy. You can preach on abortion or poverty until you are blue in the face as long as it doesn't appear that you are endorsing a particular candidate or political party. The government can even complicate this though, as the law up until know has allowed the government to infer violation based on a number of factors even when the content of the message appears on its face to be simply issue based and not directed toward any given party or candidate. Josh Bryant has worked with churches on this issue before, and he can help your church ensure compliance with this unusual law.
There are many different best practices that you could engage in to protect your church from this risk. While we don't want to stifle political speech, we do want to make sure your church is protected from undue government interference. Subscribe to Church General Counsel today for more information.
Church General Counsel Managing Attorney Josh Bryant, J.D., M.Div., authors most of the posts in this section. From time to time, he will post articles from others in the field of church growth, administration, and operations.