In case you didn’t know, since 1954 there has been a federal ban on political activity for tax exempt, 501(c)(3) organizations such as charities and churches.
A lesson Atlah World Ministries may be learning the hard way when this past February, pastor James David Manning stood in the pulpit of his little church on 123rd Street in Harlem and denounced Senator Barack Obama as a … well it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that said event soon afterward went viral on YouTube. The result, according to the NY Times, was a formal complaint to the IRS by a watchdog group focused on 501(c)(3) violating rules regarding political activity.
Another example on the other end of the ideological aisle was a case concerning the United Church of Christ (UCC) . Back in 2006 they invited then Senator Barack Obama to its annual Synod in Hartford Connecticut in 2007. And despite the Synod making it clear that this shouldn’t be a campaign event – it none-the-less it got politicized – inspiring yet another investigation by the IRS.
There are other such stories, but my point here is not to aggregate such instances, but rather to remind congregational leaders, web masters, and even Sunday school teachers that they need to take a moment and make sure everyone is aware of the July 28, 2008 memorandum from the Director, Exempt Organizations Examinations, describing how the IRS will analyze political campaign activity issues involving websites of section 501(c)(3) organizations.
In it you’ll see that it’s not just overt acts like the reckless and financially suicidal ‘die by the sword‘ Pulpit Initiative launched by the Alliance Defense Fund, but things that can occur in the normal operation of your church and/or charity website such as:
- podcasting a sermon that favors a candidate
- posting a Sunday school lesson that opposes a candidate
- distributing emails that props up one candidate over another
- links to another website that endorses a candidate
- fails to monitor a link that subsequently endorses a candidate
At least that’s this layperson’s, non-legal, untrained understanding of the IRS and what they communicate on their websites.
That said, and with my likely ignorance of some aspect of the law in mind, I’ll list below some links to sites that seem smarter than me on this tricky topic:
- IRS – Tax Information for Churches and Religious Organizations
- IRS – Political Activities Compliance Initiative (2008 Election)
- CPA Journal – Actions Tax-Exempt Organizations Should Avoid
- Diocese of Cleveland – Summary and Analysis of IRS Revenue Ruling 2007-41 (PDF)
- Charity Governance – IRS provides new guidance on political activity by charities, including web links
And from the blogosphere … these thoughts:
- Partisan Sunday Sermons Test Federal Tax Laws – WSJ Online
- Pulpit Freedom Sunday – Good Idea or Bad?
- OMB Watch – Churches Web Politicking Garners IRS Scrutiny
- Christian News Report – Pastors in Trouble with the IRS
- TaxGirl – Is Calling Obama a Pimp Enough to Raise IRS Scrutiny?
- TaxProf – 28Sep08: Thirty Churches to Endorse Presidential Candidate From Pulpit Today
- Jake Tapper, ABC News, political punch – scrutiny
- Americans United for Separation of Church and State have several rabid posts on this topic.
- Don’t mess with Taxes:Â Pulpit Freedom Sunday not likely to get an ‘amen’ from IRS … or congregants
- Joyful Christian: This is not censorship
Remember, regardless of your political leanings, violating this ban may result in denial or revocation of your organization’s tax-exempt status and the imposition of an excise tax on the amount of money spent on the activity …
… that and the loss of the many freebies and discounts your church currently enjoys with its 501(c)(3) status (think Google Apps for starts).