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D. Issue Advocacy vs. Political Campaign Intervention: Congregations and the IRS Guidelines

1) General Guidelines[1]

Section 501(c)(3) organizations may take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office. However, section 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate. A statement can identify a candidate not only by stating the candidate's name but also by other means such as showing a picture of the candidate, referring to political party affiliations, or other distinctive features of a candidate's platform or biography. All the facts and circumstances need to be considered to determine if the advocacy is political campaign intervention.

Key factors in determining whether a communication results in political campaign intervention include the following:

  • Whether the statement identifies one or more candidates for a given public office;
  • Whether the statement expresses approval or disapproval for one or more candidates' positions and/or actions;
  • Whether the statement is delivered close in time to the election;
  • Whether the statement makes reference to voting or an election;
  • Whether the issue addressed in the communication has been raised as an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office;
  • Whether the communication is part of an ongoing series of communications by the organization on the same issue that are made independent of the timing of any election; and
  • Whether the timing of the communication and identification of the candidate are related to a non-electoral event such as a scheduled vote on specific legislation by an officeholder who also happens to be a candidate for public office.

A communication is particularly at risk of political campaign intervention when it makes reference to candidates or voting in a specific upcoming election. Nevertheless, the communication must still be considered in context before arriving at any conclusions.

Example 14: University O, a section 501(c)(3) organization, prepares and finances a full page newspaper advertisement that is published in several large circulation newspapers in State V shortly before an election in which Senator C is a candidate for nomination in a party primary. Senator C represents State V in the United States Senate. The advertisement states that S. 24, a pending bill in the United States Senate, would provide additional opportunities for State V residents to attend college, but Senator C has opposed similar measures in the past.  The advertisement ends with the statement "Call or write Senator C to tell him to vote for S. 24." Educational issues have not been raised as an issue distinguishing Senator C from any opponent. S. 24 is scheduled for a vote in the United States Senate before the election, soon after the date that the advertisement is published in the newspapers. Even though the advertisement appears shortly before the election and identifies Senator C's position on the issue as contrary to O's position, University O has not violated the political campaign intervention prohibition because the advertisement does not mention the election or the candidacy of Senator C, education issues have not been raised as distinguishing Senator C from any opponent, and the timing of the advertisement and the identification of Senator C are directly related to the specifically identified legislation University O is supporting and appears immediately before the United States Senate is scheduled to vote on that particular legislation. The candidate identified, Senator C, is an officeholder who is in a position to vote on the legislation.

Example 15: Organization R, a section 501(c)(3) organization that educates the public about the need for improved public education, prepares and finances a radio advertisement urging an increase in state funding for public education in State X, which requires a legislative appropriation. Governor E is the governor of State X. The radio advertisement is first broadcast on several radio stations in State X beginning shortly before an election in which Governor E is a candidate for re-election. The advertisement is not part of an ongoing series of substantially similar advocacy communications by Organization R on the same issue. The advertisement cites numerous statistics indicating that public education in State X is under funded. While the advertisement does not say anything about Governor E's position on funding for public education, it ends with "Tell Governor E what you think about our under-funded schools." In public appearances and campaign literature, Governor E's opponent has made funding of public education an issue in the campaign by focusing on Governor E's veto of an income tax increase the previous year to increase funding of public education. At the time the advertisement is broadcast, no legislative vote or other major legislative activity is scheduled in the State X legislature on state funding of public education. Organization R has violated the political campaign prohibition because the advertisement identifies Governor E, appears shortly before an election in which Governor E is a candidate, is not part of an ongoing series of substantially similar advocacy communications by Organization R on the same issue, is not timed to coincide with a non election event such as a legislative vote or other major legislative action on that issue, and takes a position on an issue that the opponent has used to distinguish himself from Governor E.

Example 16: Candidate A and Candidate B are candidates for the state senate in District W of State X.  The issue of State X funding for a new mass transit project in District W is a prominent issue in the campaign. Both candidates have spoken out on the issue. Candidate A supports for the new mass transit project. Candidate B opposes the project and supports State X funding for highway improvements instead.  P is the executive director of C, a section 501(c)(3) organization that promotes community development in District W.  At C's annual fundraising dinner in District W, which takes place in the month before the election in State X, P gives a lengthy speech about community development issues including the transportation issues. P does not mention the name of any candidate or any political party. However, at the conclusion of the speech, P makes the following statement, "For those of you who care about quality of life in District W and the growing traffic congestion, there is a very important choice coming up next month. We need new mass transit.  More highway funding will not make a difference. You have the power to relieve the congestion and improve your quality of life in District W.  Use that power when you go to the polls and cast your vote in the election for your state senator." C has violated the political campaign intervention as a result of P's remarks at C's official function shortly before the election, in which P referred to the upcoming election after stating a position on an issue that is a prominent issue in a campaign that distinguishes the candidates.

2) Websites[2]

The Internet has become a widely used communications tool. Section 501(c)(3) organizations use their own web sites to disseminate statements and information. They also routinely link their web sites to web sites maintained by other organizations as a way of providing additional information that the organizations believe is useful or relevant to the public.

A web site is a form of communication. If an organization posts something on its web site that favors or opposes a candidate for public office, the organization will be treated the same as if it distributed printed material, oral statements or broadcasts that favored or opposed a candidate.

An organization has control over whether it establishes a link to another site. When an organization establishes a link to another web site, the organization is responsible for the consequences of establishing and maintaining that link, even if the organization does not have control over the content of the linked site. Because the linked content may change over time, an organization may reduce the risk of political campaign intervention by monitoring the linked content and adjusting the links accordingly.

Links to candidate-related material, by themselves, do not necessarily constitute political campaign intervention. All the facts and circumstances must be taken into account when assessing whether a link produces that result. The facts and circumstances to be considered include, but are not limited to, the context for the link on the organization’s web site, whether all candidates are represented, any exempt purpose served by offering the link, and the directness of the links between the organization’s web site and the web page that contains material favoring or opposing a candidate for public office.

Situation 19. M, a section 501(c)(3) organization, maintains a web site and posts an unbiased, nonpartisan voter guide that is prepared consistent with the principles discussed in Rev. Rul. 78-248. For each candidate covered in the voter guide, M includes a link to that candidate's official campaign web site. The links to the candidate web sites are presented on a consistent neutral basis for each candidate, with text saying "For more information on Candidate X, you may consult [URL]." M has not intervened in a political campaign because the links are provided for the exempt purpose of educating voters and are presented in a neutral, unbiased manner that includes all candidates for a particular office.

Situation 20. Hospital N, a section 501(c)(3) organization, maintains a web site that includes such information as medical staff listings, directions to Hospital N, and descriptions of its specialty health programs, major research projects, and other community outreach programs. On one page of the web site, Hospital N describes its treatment program for a particular disease. At the end of the page, it includes a section of links to other web sites titled "More Information." These links include links to other hospitals that have treatment programs for this disease, research organizations seeking cures for that disease, and articles about treatment programs. This section includes a link to an article on the web site of O, a major national newspaper, praising Hospital N's treatment program for the disease. The page containing the article on O's web site contains no reference to any candidate or election and has no direct links to candidate or election information. Elsewhere on O's web site, there is a page displaying editorials that O has published. Several of the editorials endorse candidates in an election that has not yet occurred. Hospital N has not intervened in a political campaign by maintaining the link to the article on O's web site because the link is provided for the exempt purpose of educating the public about Hospital N's programs and neither the context for the link, nor the relationship between Hospital N and O nor the arrangement of the links going from Hospital N's web site to the endorsement on O's web site indicate that Hospital N was favoring or opposing any candidate.

Situation 21. Church P, a section 501(c)(3) organization, maintains a web site that includes such information as biographies of its ministers, times of services, details of community outreach programs, and activities of members of its congregation. B, a member of the congregation of Church P, is running for a seat on the town council. Shortly before the election, Church P posts the following message on its web site, "Lend your support to B, your fellow parishioner, in Tuesday's election for town council." Church P has intervened in a political campaign on behalf of B.

3) Other Internet Communications

Like a web site, internet activities such as chat rooms, discussion boards, email groups, and lists are forms of communication. While the IRS has not provided guidance in this area, any organization that uses these or other internet communications in an official organizational capacity would do well to treat them in the same manner as a printed communication, with the same guidelines and prohibitions.

Internet communications used by members of a congregation in a non-official capacity may or may not be subject to the IRS guidelines. Those utilizing technology owned by, maintained by or held in the name of the congregation, such as a listserv program, could be interpreted as an official activity.

Lacking clear guidance, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, based on consultation with legal counsel and our concern for congregational well-being, recommends that congregations consider the IRS guidelines as applying to any internet communications activity that is owned or supported by the congregation. While the IRS may find that communications fora that originate outside the congregation, such as a free discussion groups, might not be subject to the guidelines, the UUA recommends ensuring that equal access is given to any group that may want to discuss partisan issues. For example, a congregation that allows an unofficial discussion group of members of the congregation who are affiliated with one political party should also allow unofficial groups from other parties. The congregation may also reasonably determine that all partisan communications should be prohibited in these fora.

Footnotes

  1. Section D1 is a direct quote from IRS Revenue Ruling 2007-41, p. 8-10.
  2. Section D2 is a direct quote from IRS Revenue Ruling 2007-41, p. 11-13.

For more information contact socialjustice @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 13, 2012.

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