During every election cycle, many religious congregations find themselves wondering what role, if any, they can play in the political process. Can a minister, rabbi, imam or other member of the clergy endorse a candidate from the pulpit or speak on political issues of interest to voters? Is a church or other house of worship legally permitted to register voters or distribute voter guides? Answers to these and many other questions are contained in this guide.
The guide sets out in plain English the rules governing political activity that apply to nonprofit organizations (including churches and other religious groups) that are exempt from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The 2012 edition of the guide updates versions published by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2002, 2004 and 2008. The original report was written by Deirdre Dessingue, associate general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a leading expert on the taxation of religious organizations. The latest edition of the guide has been vetted by a number of other prominent legal experts in this field.
The current rules have been in place since 1954, when Congress amended the Internal Revenue Code to impose limits on the political activities of religious groups and certain other tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. In recent years, some have voiced strong opposition to these limits, especially as they are applied to religious groups, arguing that they amount to an unfair abridgement of free speech. Indeed, since 2008, the conservative Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund) has organized Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a date on which the group encourages pastors to speak out on election-related issues.1 Others, including some religious leaders, have vigorously defended the Internal Revenue Code rules, asserting that they correctly prevent churches from getting too deeply involved in partisan politics.
The Pew Forum takes no position in this or any other policy debate. The Pew Forum commissioned this publication solely to better inform religious groups and others on the provisions and meaning of the law as it is currently written. The Pew Forum’s overall mission is to deliver timely, impartial information on issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.
“Preaching Politics From the Pulpit” is published with the understanding that the Pew Forum is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional advice. If legal advice or other professional assistance is required, the services of a qualified professional should be sought.
Note: Throughout this document, the term “churches” refers to churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and other religious congregations. The term “religious organizations” has a broader meaning, including both churches and other types of religious organizations that are exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Download the Full Report PDF (256KB, 22 pages)
Photo Credit: iStockPhoto