Don Krahel is a great American Patriot.
An Open Letter to the Pastors of Springfield, Missouri RE: Political Activity & 501(c)(3) Tax Exemption
On March 15, Pastor John Lindell of James River Church boldly urged his congregation— from the pulpit—to vote in favor of repealing Springfield, Missouri’s sexual orientation, gender identity law on April 7. Pastor Lindell noted that addressing this issue from the pulpit is legal, consistent with Gospel ministry, and necessary given the law’s detrimental effect on religious freedom.
Critics predictably responded with calls to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status for “crossing the line” into political activity. This is legal nonsense.
Misinformation and scare tactics have all but silenced the church’s voice on civic issues, but Alliance Defending Freedom is committed to reversing this trend. Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, not-for-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith. We represent pastors and churches nationwide whose religious freedoms have been infringed by government officials, and we vigorously advocate for both an uncensored pulpit and a church with equal access to the public square.
Pastor, do not allow yourself to be intimidated into silence. You have every right to join Pastor Lindell in shepherding your congregation through this debate over Springfield’s sexual orientation, gender identity law. You did not surrender your First Amendment freedoms by entering the pastorate, nor do you endanger your church’s tax-exempt status by engaging on civic issues. No church—in any reported case to date—has lost its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status due to political activity.1
But despite this fact, misconceptions concerning IRS restrictions on political activity abound. Here is a short summary of what you need to know about political activity and your church’s 501(c)(3) status.
The IRS imposes two restrictions on a church’s political activity: (1) the lobbying limitation and (2) the candidate prohibition.
1 The IRS temporarily revoked the tax-exempt letter of one church for purchasing a full-page newspaper advertisement urging Christians to vote against a presidential candidate. But the church’s tax-exempt status was untouched. This distinction is crucial. Churches do not need a tax-exempt letter to be tax exempt. Churches are automatically exempt under IRS code. Many churches take the additional step of obtaining a tax-exempt letter from the IRS, but it is not required.
Springfield, Missouri Pastors & Religious Leaders April 1, 2015 Page 2
I. The Lobbying Limitation Contrary to popular opinion, churches and pastors can lobby. Federal law does not prohibit pastors from urging their congregants or their elected officials to support or oppose referenda, ballot initiatives, legislative bills, or proposed ordinances.
The IRS simply limits churches to spending no more than an “insubstantial” amount of their resources on lobbying. An “insubstantial” amount is generally considered to be from five to 15 percent of a church’s time and funds in any given year.
The most important point to recognize about this lobbying limitation is its insignificance. No church has yet come even close to losing its tax-exempt status for substantial lobbying. This is likely because no church has yet come remotely close to expending five percent of all of the time its church doors are open in any given year, or five percent of all its financial expenditures in any given year, on lobbying. This threshold is significantly higher than appears at first glance.
Furthermore, a great deal of activity in support of or opposition to a bill simply does not qualify as lobbying. For example, a pastor may preach on how to evaluate a legislative issue from a biblical worldview. Churches may hold educational meetings and distribute educational materials about a proposed ordinance or ballot issue. These activities are not lobbying.
Finally, this limitation applies to churches and to pastors in their official capacities as church representatives. Pastors acting individually, and not as official church representatives, enjoy the same right to lobby as any other citizen. Pastors may lobby in their individual capacities without impacting the lobbying tally of their churches.
So, pastor, know that if you choose to speak out on the repeal of Springfield’s sexual orientation, gender identity law, you do not jeopardize your church’s 501(c)(3) tax exempt status for engaging in substantial lobbying. II. The Candidate Prohibition The second IRS restriction, although less pertinent to the April 7 vote on repeal, is also worth noting. Churches are recognized as exempt from federal income tax under 501(c)(3) so long as they do not “intervene” in political campaigns. Political intervention, essentially, is advocating for or against candidates for political office. This means that the IRS prohibits churches from activities such as:
• endorsing or opposing political candidates, • making financial contributions to political candidates, and • distributing political campaign literature.
There are two important points to keep in mind regarding the candidate prohibition. First, the candidate prohibition applies to churches and to pastors in their official capacities as church representatives. As discussed above, pastors acting individually, and not as official church representatives, enjoy the same right to speak out as any other citizen. They may freely support or oppose political candidates without violating the candidate prohibition, or implicating their church’s 501(c)(3) tax status.
Second, the candidate prohibition bans a narrow category of political activity. Churches and their pastors can still discuss candidates’ positions on various issues without violating the candidate prohibition. Churches and their pastors can still distribute non-partisan voter guides, urge their congregants to get out and vote, or even rent out their facilities to candidates on the same terms as any other public group. Only advocating for or against a candidate is prohibited.
We at Alliance Defending Freedom believe that even this narrow IRS prohibition unconstitutionally restricts a pastor’s speech. The Scriptures address every aspect of life in principle, if not in precept. Thus, pastors and churches must be free to proclaim biblical truth from the pulpit as it applies to candidates and elections. In fact, for the first 200 years in America, such “political” speech was the norm. Pastors boldly named candidates from the pulpit to help their congregants navigate civic life from a biblical worldview.
This drastically changed in 1954 when Congress, without debate or analysis, amended the Internal Revenue Code to condition tax-exempt status on surrendering such speech. That is why in 2008, Alliance Defending Freedom launched the Pulpit Initiative to challenge government censorship of a pastor’s speech from the pulpit. To learn more about this initiative, please visit PulpitFreedom.org. III. Conclusion Pastor, do not let concerns over tax exemption silence you on important public issues. You have every right to speak out on Springfield’s sexual orientation, gender identity law—both as a concerned citizen and as a representative of your church. Engaging on civic issues will not jeopardize your church’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, and those who suggest otherwise misapprehend the law.
In a culture that is quickly losing its moral compass, your voice is needed now more than ever. Rest assured that should you or your church face the threat of legal action for exercising your right to speak out, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys stand ready to assist you free of charge.
Respectfully submitted, __________________________ Christiana M. Holcomb, Litigation Counsel Erik W. Stanley, Senior Legal Counsel