Candidates running for office in 2016 are facing a multitude of issues as we dive headlong into yet another election season. Truly, the stakes for our nation and for religious liberty have never been higher. This is why it’s so important for pastors all across our nation to be speaking out individually and from their pulpits on the issues of the day. As the spiritual shepherds of millions of souls, our pastors have a tremendous responsibility to preach the Word, which includes educating those who sit in their pews on what the Bible has to say to these pressing issues of our time. As Christians, we all need to be educated biblically about these matters so we know how we should respond at the ballot box. There is only one area in particular where churches need to be careful: the official endorsing or opposing of particular political candidates.
When a church is established or incorporated under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS tax code, and even if a church isn’t officially incorporated, it becomes subject to the restrictions in that section on political activity. These restrictions prohibit all tax exempt organizations from officially participating or intervening in any political campaigns on behalf of a particular candidate for public office. Among other things, this specifically prohibits the exempt organization or anyone acting on behalf of the organization (in particular, the church’s pastors and/or elders) from endorsing any candidate for public office on behalf of the church. A church—or a pastor acting on behalf of the church—that does endorse a candidate risks the loss of its ministry’s tax exemption.
A candidate for public office is “an individual who offers himself or is proposed by others for an elective public office, whether such office be national, state, or local.” It does not matter whether a political party has endorsed the candidate or whether the candidate is running unopposed. Incumbents are considered to be perpetual candidates unless they are not eligible for re-election.
Practically speaking, these restrictions on a pastor mean that in his official capacity as pastor/elder of the church, he may not make statements in support of or in opposition to political candidates for public office. This would prohibit him from making statements on behalf of the church from the platform, on social media, on the church website, in any official church literature, or in any other venue or forum where the pastor (or other church leaders) are speaking as representatives of the church in their official capacities as church leaders.
Pastors as well as other church leaders and members may, however, endorse or oppose candidates for public office in their individual capacities as long as they are NOT doing so officially as representatives of or on behalf of the church. In doing so, the pastor may state that he is the pastor of the church but only for identification purposes, and he should make clear that he is not speaking on behalf of the church. The same goes for a pastor who allows his name to be used by a candidate as one who supports the candidate for office. Any reference to the pastor’s affiliation with the church must clearly indicate that such reference is for identification purposes only.
Some examples of what pastors may do without jeopardizing their tax exempt status:
At the NCLL, we believe that the political restrictions placed by the IRS code on pastors and churches are an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment’s free speech and freedom of religion protections. Prior to the American Revolution and for nearly a century after our nation was founded, pastors served as a Black Regiment, preaching liberty and even election sermons on the Sunday before Election Day in order to inform their members about the various issues and candidates on the ballot. All churches encouraged their members to vote their biblical faith. Today only a handful of America’s evangelical Christians even participated in the 2012 election, and many believe that lack of participation had a large effect on the outcome of that election.
If a pastor at one of our NCLL premier partner churches believes God is calling him to speak out on election issues and candidates from the pulpit, the NCLL will defend those actions if they have been done in the right way and with the right spirit. Pastor and churches, however, need to understand that these actions may place the ministry’s tax exemption at risk.