Summary of the Real Rules: The Three Point System
The IRS regulations on the activities of congregations can be summarized as follows:
1. Issue Advocacy
Without limits on time, effort and expense, congregations and their representatives may engage in issue advocacy through activities such as educating and mobilizing congregants and the general public. Example: encouraging the public to show concern for global warming by reducing carbon emissions. Please note that issue advocacy is only acceptable if it does not involve political campaign intervention (see below).
Within narrow limits on time, effort and expense, congregations and their representatives may engage in lobbying—defined by the IRS as advocating for or against specific pieces of legislation—as an "unsubstantial" portion of an organization's activities. The IRS has not provided a strict rule for what constitutes “unsubstantial,” and evaluates on a case-by-case basis. However, courts and the IRS have ruled in the past that lobbying activity constituting 5% or less of total activities is acceptable. "Total activities" includes the total amount of money, staff, and volunteer time that goes into running the organization. While the 5% amount is not a strict rule, it can be used as a guidepost for an organization's lobbying activities. Example: encouraging a city council, state legislature, and/or Congress to pass a particular law to reduce carbon emissions.
3. Political Campaign Intervention
There is a total limit on partisan activity, which the IRS calls political campaign intervention. Congregations and their representatives can do nothing that advocates for or against candidates for public office or political parties. This includes fundraising on behalf of candidates and donating meeting space, among other things. Example: supporting a particular candidate or party because of their stance on carbon emissions. Election-related activities such as candidate questionnaires and forums may be acceptable if certain guidelines are followed; consult section C., “Political (Electoral) Activities” of this guide for details.
Please Note: The restrictions on lobbying and political campaign intervention described here apply only to a congregation as a legal entity, or to a person or group speaking in the name of the congregation. A minister or congregation member may freely engage in these activities as an individual. However, if the person(s) are identified by or likely to be associated with the congregation, it may be helpful to clearly state that they are speaking as individuals. Also, Congress has imposed special limitations, found in section 7611 of the Internal Revenue Code, on how and when the IRS may conduct civil tax inquiries and examinations of churches. The IRS may begin a church tax inquiry only if an appropriate high-level Treasury official reasonably believes, on the basis of facts and circumstances recorded in writing, that an organization claiming to be a church or convention or association of churches may not qualify for exemption (see note 1).
Note 1: IRS Website “Special Rules Limiting IRS Authority to Audit a Church” Reviewed or Updated June 8, 2016.