Civic Guidelines For Churches And Pastors (Also available in Spanish -- call our office)
 
With our nation rapidly turning its back on its Judeo-Christian heritage, pastors and churches wonder what they can do to stem the tide of unrighteousness in our land. This pamphlet is designed to provide general guidance to churches in determining how they may be involved in affecting government and public policy for the better.
 
Public Policy Isuues: Educating Your Members
 
The most effective and efficient way for a church to make a difference in government and public policy is to ensure that the individual members of its congregation are prepared and trained to be informed and responsible citizens. A church should include as part of its mission educating the congregation on vital issues of public policy (e.g., education, abortion, taxes, etc.), sound principles of government, responsible citizenship, and the importance of becoming individually involved in the political process.

There are a number of specific ways in which churches may fulfill this mission to educate a congregation. These include preaching from the pulpit, teaching in Sunday school classes, sponsoring seminars on topics such as the Biblical principles of government, and providing literature tables for the distribution of educational materials.
 
Legislation
 
General Rule: Under Section 501(c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code, churches may engage in some "legislative activity" and still qualify for favored tax status as long as such activity is not more than an "insubstantial" part of its overall activity, in terms of time and money (e.g., worship, services, Sunday school programs, etc.). Although the amount of legislative activity that is permissible is somewhat imprecise, legislative activity amounting to up to 5 percent of the overall activity is generally considered a "safe harbor." Activity between 5 and 20 percent is less certain and, therefore, less safe. Activity over 20 percent has been found unacceptable.

"Legislative activity" is defined as any conduct intended to influence legislation-bills before the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, measures before city councils, initiatives, and referendums. It covers such actions as directly contacting legislators about legislation, urging church members and others to communicate with legislators about legislation, and circulating petitions related to legislation.

Provided the amount of activity is appropriate under Internal Revenue Code limits, a church may engage in any of these actions. In addition, a church may loan its membership or mailing list to another organization for the purpose of influencing legislation, although the cost of providing the list would constitute legislative expenditure.

The Internal Revenue Code places no limitations on the legislative activity of church members, including pastors, when acting as individuals and not on behalf of the church. And, once again, one of the most important tasks a church can perform is to teach its members how to be effective as individual citizens.
 
Elections
 
General Rule: The Internal Revenue Code absolutely prohibits 501 (c) (3) organizations, including churches, from engaging in activity in support of or opposition to any candidate for public office, or from participating in a political campaign. On the other hand, churches may engage in some nonpartisan elections-related activities, including voter registration and voter education projects. Endorsing Candidates

A church may not endorse or oppose a candidate for public office as that would constitute prohibited political activity under the Internal Revenue Code. In addition, when he is speaking or acting on behalf of his church, a pastor may not endorse or oppose a candidate.

On the other hand, a clergyman or pastor of a church may, as an individual, personally endorse or oppose a candidate. The fact that he is employed by a church does not negate his constitutional rights of free speech and political expression. In addition, if a pastor lends his name to a candidate for political advertisements or devotes personal time to a candidate's campaign, his title may be listed with his name for the purposes of identification.

Finally, although it is permissible for a pastor to personally endorse or oppose a candidate form the pulpit, it should be made clear that it is strictly his personal position-not that of the church. In addition, such statements should not be made on a regular basis to prevent them from being attributed to the church.
 
Appearance by Individual Candidates
 
Candidates may be introduced to a congregation in the course of a service. In addition, candidates may be afforded such opportunities as preaching, teaching, and reading scriptures on the same basis as other church members or participants. However, a candidate should not be allowed to deliver political speeches to garner support or raise funds for his campaign.

As for public officeholders, as a general rule such individuals may be freely invited to speak at a church. However, if the officeholder is also a candidate (e.g., he is running for re-election), the rules for candidates must be applied.
 
Contributions and Fundraising
 
Under the Internal Revenue Code, a church may not contribute money to or raise funds for a political party or a candidate for public office. In addition to this restriction, the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) is applicable. That law prohibits any corporation from making contributions or expenditures in connection with a federal campaign. Those churches that are incorporated are subject to this provision.

Because the FECA prohibition relates to direct or indirect contributions or expenditures of money, it would not, for instance, prohibit introducing a candidate to give a sermon. But candidates should not be allowed to use church facilities for political purposes because this may be viewed as the equivalent of a contribution.
 
Mailing Lists
 
A church may not loan its membership or mailing list to a candidate or political committee for use in an election campaign. This would violate the Internal Revenue Code prohibition on participation in an election campaign. In a federal election, it would also violate the FECA prohibition on even indirect expenditures by a corporation for a federal campaign to the extent church funds were used to develop the membership list.
 
Voter Registration
 
A church may sponsor or conduct a nonpartisan voter registration or "get-out-the-vote" drive among its members or on its premises. As part of such an effort, a church may spend money to pay registration organizers or to mail out registration forms.

In order to be nonpartisan, a voter registration drive must be designed and carried out in a nonpartisan manner, not showing any bias for or against certain candidate or political parties. For example, during the registration, organizers and volunteers should not display campaign materials (e.g., literature, button, etc.) for candidates, distribute material on specific issues that will create a bias for or against certain candidates, or urge voters to register for a particular party.

A church may also conduct a voter registration drive in a coalition effort with other organizations. However, care must be taken that the other organizations do not engage in prohibited partisan activities under the auspices of the coalition, as such activities might be attributed to the church.
 
Voter Education
 
A church may also engage in certain "voter education" activities to inform voters about the candidates' views on issues.
 
Nonpartisan Voters' Guides
 
One way church may educate voters is by publishing or distributing nonpartisan voters' guides. A voters' guide reports the views of candidates by publishing their public voting records or publishing their responses to unbiased, nonpartisan questionnaires.

A voters' guide must be prepared and structured so as not to create a bias for or against any candidates. Thus, all candidates for a particular office should be included in the guide. In addition, the issues covered in a voters' guide should be selected on the basis of their interest to the general public. Nonpartisanship also requires that a voters' guide not include editorial opinion and not express approval or disapproval of candidates' positions. Finally, questions asked in a candidate questionnaire must not be structured or written in such a way as to evidence bias on the issues covered.
 
Nonpartisan Candidate Forums
 
Another way in which a church may educate voters is by hosting or conducting a nonpartisan candidate forum in which candidates debate or discuss their views on relevant issues. The forum must be conducted in a manner that does not create a bias for or against any candidates. Thus, all candidates for the particular office in question should be invited to participate. In addition, questions asked of candidates must be framed in an unbiased fashion. Finally, the forum should cover a broad range of issues of interest to the general public.
 
Conclusion
 
Our nation and our government are in desperate need of the "salt and light" that only the church, her pastors, and her people can provide. By understanding and creatively using the lawful means at your disposal, you can make a difference!

This is intended to be a general discussion and should not be interpreted as legal device. Churches or pastors needing advice as to particular circumstances should seek the counsel of their own legal/tax advisors.