Pastor & Politics
Information regarding churches and non-profits can be found on the state of Virginia tax department web site. Please go to the following web site: http://www.tax.virginia.gov/site.cfm?alias=SUTExemption#Requirements
Is involvement in politics scriptural?
Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with instructions to God’s people concerning their role in government. Some of the duties that the Bible directs believers to in relation to government are listed below:
- Pray (I Timothy 2:1-2)
- Exercise stewardship (Genesis 1:28)
- Speak the truth publicly (Daniel 5)
- Participate (Romans 13:6-7)
- Improve the community (Nehemiah 2:17-18)
What can a pastor legally do?
Since the pastor is the most influential person in the church, he should be vitally active in the political process. But in many cases, a lack of information regarding the legality of his political involvement has made him mute. The boundaries for a pastor’s activities below were outlined by tax lawyer Alan Dye with a Washington DC based law firm.
- Publicly support candidates and issues: the pastor may allow his name to be used in political ads in support of candidates or issues. He may be identified in the ad as the pastor of a particular church.
- Establish a political action committee (PAC): the pastor may work with other individuals to establish a PAC. The committee can have church members on it, but must operate and be viewed as separate from the church.
- Lobby and circulate petitions: the pastor may engage in lobbying activities as an individual. He can also circulate petitions.
- Encourage or preach on Christian activism: the pastor may speak from the pulpit to encourage the members of his congregation to become active in every aspect of the political process and to pray for elected officials as often as he chooses. The pastor may lead the congregation in praying for elections as long as the prayer is not a direct or indirect endorsement of any candidate or candidates.
- What does federal law allow a church to do: a church can be very involved in political activities without endangering its tax-exempt status.
- Voter registration/voter education: a church may engage in and spend money for nonpartisan voter registration and voter education activities so long as those activities are not intended to benefit any particular candidate or political party.
- Conduct political forums: a church may hold public political forums for the purposes of discussing election issues; debating political and social matters or hearing several candidates present their views, so long as all viable candidates for the office are invited.
- Introduce candidates at services: a candidate may be introduced during church services and can deliver a sermon, lead in prayer, read from the Scriptures or give a word of personal testimony. Important note: a candidate may not speak during church services to ask for support or funds to be used in his political campaign.
- Give or loan its mailing list: a church may provide a list of its members to a candidate to be used to seek support or raise funds. Important note: a church cannot show favoritism by selectively providing or refusing its list to individuals or organizations. For example, if the list is made available to one candidate it must be made available to other individuals and organizations on the same basis. If there is normally a charge for use of the list, anyone who obtains the list must be charged the same amount.
- Circulate petitions and lobby: a church can spend a small percentage (probably no more than 5%) of its time and money circulating petitions and engaging in lobbying and other legislative activities. The outcome of legislation, including lobbying, is any attempt to influence a matter before a legislative body, including initiatives and referendums.
What does federal law prohibit?
Federal tax law prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in electoral activities. Electoral activities are activities designed to specifically influence the outcome of elections (i.e., elect particular candidates or a political party’s slate of candidates).
- Establishment of a PAC: a church cannot set up or sponsor a PAC (political action committee). A PAC is an organization established to help candidates who share the PAC’s philosophy and goals by providing financial assistance and volunteer help. A PAC also exerts political pressure for or against various issues. Important note: individuals in the church (including the pastor) can band together and establish a PAC, but they cannot do it in the name or through the sponsorship of the church.
- Contribute to political parties or candidates: a church (as an organization) may not contribute funds to political parties or candidates seeking office. It is also prohibited from working on behalf of or in opposition to specific candidates. Important note: nothing prohibits individuals in the church (including the pastor) from contributing funds and donating time to any political party or candidate of their choosing.
- Endorsement of candidates: the church itself may not endorse candidates for political office and no individual can endorse a candidate or group of candidates on behalf of the entire church. Important note: again, nothing prohibits individuals within the congregation (including the pastor) from endorsing candidates of their choosing.
What can my church do?
What can I do and say without being sued by the ACLU or the Americans United for Separation of Church and State? The answer is: a lot more than you may think.
- A pastor MAY individually and personally endorse candidates for political office.
- A church MAY NOT endorse candidates for political office, and a pastor may not endorse candidates on behalf of the church.
- A pastor MAY allow his name to be used as a supporter of a candidate in the candidate’s own political advertisements. In this connection the pastor MAY be identified as pastor of a particular church, if it is indicated that this is for identification purposes only and that the endorsement is by the pastor personally and not by the church.
- Churches MAY engage in non-partisan voter registration, get out the vote, and voter-education activities so long as such activities are not directed at the supporters of any particular candidate or political party.
- Churches MAY distribute a voter guide regarding candidates’ positions on various issues or a scorecard reporting on the voting records of incumbents. However, the church or pastor may not state whether the candidate’s position or vote is consistent with the church's position.
- A church or pastor IS free to state the position of a candidate on an issue and may comment on that position (including praising or criticizing the candidate for it.)
- A church MAY allow political candidates to speak on church premises; however, all candidates should be invited and given equal opportunity to speak. A candidate should not be allowed to appeal to a church congregation at a church service for funds to be used in his campaign, and no member of the church should endorse a candidate in conjunction with the candidate’s visit.
- Church facilities MAY be used by political candidates on the same basis that civic groups are allowed to. If civic groups pay some rent, a political candidate should be charged the same amount.
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