Most houses of worship and other non-profits qualify as 501(c)(3) organizations, which means those organizations receive tax-exempt status. To take advantage of the benefit of tax exemption, however, houses of worship and non-profits must follow federal tax law, which prohibits them from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. While intervening on behalf of a candidate in elections is prohibited, religious leaders may still discuss political issues. Furthermore, if houses of worship really want to endorse a candidate, they can do so, but they must forfeit their tax-exempt status.  AU’s Project Fair Play website clearly sets out what churches may or may not do while retaining their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

This rule prevents tax-deductible charitable donations from being used to support candidates. Religious institutions also benefit, as tying political candidates with religion is undoubtedly divisive and distracts from religious doctrine itself. 

Despite this clear law, many religious leaders aim to incorporate partisan politics into sermons. AU recently sent a letter to a wide range of houses of worship around the country reminding them what they may and may not do while retaining their tax-exempt status.

Over the years, we have seen several attempts in Congress to exempt houses of worship from the ban on endorsing candidates.  Most recently, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) issued a report calling for an end to the ban on church electioneering.  He asked the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability to chair a special Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations on this and other church governance issues.  AU filed comments with the Commission stating that religious groups should not receive special privileges over non-religious groups when it comes to oversight and auditing of 501(c)(3)s.

Sometimes state legislatures get involved as well. In 2011, AU opposed New Hampshire HCR 25, which urged U.S. Congress to pass a law allowing houses of worship to intervene in political campaigns while retaining their tax-exempt status.

Additional resources:

  • AU’s Project Fair Play website
  • AU comments to the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations
  • AU letter opposing New Hampshire HCR 25

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