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B. Advocacy and Lobbying: Congregations and the IRS Guidelines

1) General Issue Advocacy

There is no limit on the amount of time, effort, or expense congregations may devote to working on general issues such as civil rights, civil liberties, economic justice, the environment, or peace.  Some of the many acceptable activities include: advocating positions in the media and to elected officials; educating and mobilizing congregants and the general public, and working in local coalitions or partnerships on issues of social justice.

2) Influencing Legislation (Lobbying) [1]

In general, no organization, including a congregation, may qualify for Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying)." Legislation" includes:

  • Action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions, or similar items (such as legislative confirmation of appointive offices):,or
  • [Action] by the public in a referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment or similar procedure.

[Legislation] does not include actions by executive, judicial, or administrative bodies.

A congregation or religious organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.

a) Measuring Lobbying: the Substantial Part Test[2]

Whether or not a congregation's attempts to influence legislation constitute a substantial part of its overall activities is determined on the basis of all the pertinent facts and circumstances in each case. The IRS considers a variety of factors, including the time devoted (by both compensated and volunteer workers) and the expenditures devoted by the organization to the activity, when determining whether the lobbying activity is substantial.

Although the IRS has not defined what is "substantial," courts and the IRS have ruled in the past that lobbying activities constituting 5% or less of total activities is acceptable. The IRS has also noted that where 16 to 20% of total activities have been devoted to lobbying, those activities have generally been considered "substantial."[3]

b) Lobbying During Election Years[4]

Congregations may support or criticize legislators, lobby them, and work to hold them accountable. However, close to an election, the IRS may view a sudden entry into the political arena as partisan. A track record of consistent activity is the best safeguard against these charges.

c) Nonpartisan Analysis[5]

Congregations may sponsor and distribute to their members, the general public, or governmental bodies, a "nonpartisan analysis, study, or research" of legislation (including ballot measures, referenda, state constitutional amendments, city charter amendments, etc.) without the activity being considered lobbying or partisan. Such nonpartisan analysis must be independent and objective in order to not count as lobbying.  However, it "may advocate a particular position or viewpoint so long as there is sufficiently full and fair presentation of the pertinent facts to enable the public or an individual to form an opinion or conclusion, as opposed to the mere presentation of unsupported opinion."

If you plan to produce an analysis that will be used for lobbying, meaning that it will encourage readers to take action on legislation (which is permissible), be sure to include the money and time spent on it in your substantial part calculations.

Footnotes

  1. This first section of B2 is a direct quote from IRS Publication 1828, p. 5.
  2. The first paragraph of B2a is a direct quote from IRS Publication 1828, p. 5.
  3. The second paragraph of B2a is derived from Lobbying Issues in Exempt Organizations Judith E. Kindell & John F. Reilly. Continuing Professional Education Technical Instruction Program for Fiscal Year 1997, 277 n.20 (1996), p. 280.
  4. Section B2b is derived from The Rules of the Game: An Election Year Legal Guide for Nonprofit Organizations. Colvin, Gregory L. and Lowell Finley. Alliance for Justice. (1996), p. 18.
  5. Section B2c is derived from Lobbying Issues in Exempt Organizations, p. 274, 302.

For more information contact socialjustice @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 13, 2012.

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