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C. Political (Electoral) Activities: Congregations and the IRS Guidelines

A 501(c)(3) organization "may not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office."[1]

"Whether an organization is participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each case. For example, certain 'voter education' activities, including preparation and distribution of certain voter guides, conducted in a nonpartisan manner may not constitute prohibited political activities under section 501(c)(3) of the Code.

"Other so-called 'voter education' activities may be proscribed by the statute …if they show a bias or preference in content or structure with respect to the views of a particular candidate."[2]

1) Supporting/Opposing Candidates

a) Endorsements/Advertising

Congregations may not: issue letters of endorsement or opposition printed on congregation letterhead; distribute campaign literature at congregational events; display campaign signs on congregation property, or engage in any other activities that could be construed as endorsing or opposing a candidate. This applies to elections at all levels, from school board to national offices, regardless of whether or not it is a partisan election.

b) Financial Contributions

Congregations may not: contribute money to candidates, solicit contributions on a candidate's behalf, donate to candidate's political action committees, or create political action committees of their own. Individuals may not fundraise for candidates at the congregation (except in compliance with the guidelines in the next section), or use congregational letterhead or other official materials for such purposes.

c) Business Activity[3]

The question of whether an activity constitutes participation or intervention in a political campaign may also arise in the context of a business activity of the organization, such as selling or renting of mailing lists, the leasing of office space, or the acceptance of paid political advertising. In this context, some of the factors to be considered in determining whether the organization has engaged in political campaign intervention include the following:

  • Whether the good, service or facility is available to candidates in the same election on an equal basis,
  • Whether the good, service, or facility is available only to candidates and not to the general public,
  • Whether the fees charged to candidates are at the organization's customary and usual rates, and
  • Whether the activity is an ongoing activity of the organization or whether it is conducted only for a particular candidate.

d) Individual Activity by Religious Leaders[4]

The political campaign intervention prohibition is not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals. Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy. However, for their organizations to remain tax exempt under section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.

Example 4: President B is the president of University K, a section 501(c)(3) organization. University K publishes a monthly alumni newsletter that is distributed to all alumni of the university. In each issue, President B has a column titled "My Views." The month before the election, President B states in the "My Views" column, “It is my personal opinion that Candidate U should be reelected.” For that one issue, President B pays from his personal funds the portion of the cost of the newsletter attributable to the "My Views" column. Even though he paid part of the cost of the newsletter, the newsletter is an official publication of the university. Because the endorsement appeared in an official publication of University K, it constitutes campaign intervention by University K.

Example 5: Minister C is the minister of Church L, a section 501(c)(3) organization and Minister C is well known in the community. Three weeks before the election, he attends a press conference at Candidate V's campaign headquarters and states that Candidate V should be reelected. Minister C does not say he is speaking on behalf of Church L.  His endorsement is reported on the front page of the local newspaper and he is identified in the article as the minister of Church L. Because Minister C did not make the endorsement at an official church function, in an official church publication or otherwise use the church's assets, and did not state that he was speaking as a representative of Church L, his actions do not constitute campaign intervention by Church L.

2) Inviting a Candidate to Speak[5]

Depending on the facts and circumstances, an organization may invite political candidates to speak at its events without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status. Political candidates may be invited in their capacity as candidates, or in their individual capacity (not as a candidate). Candidates may also appear without an invitation at organization events that are open to the public.

When a candidate is invited to speak at an organization event in his or her capacity as a political candidate, factors in determining whether the organization participated or intervened in a political campaign include the following:

  • Whether the organization provides an equal opportunity to participate to political candidates seeking the same office;
  • Whether the organization indicates any support for or opposition to the candidate (including candidate introductions and communications concerning the candidate's attendance); and
  • Whether any political fundraising occurs.

a) Equal Opportunity to Participate

In determining whether candidates are given an equal opportunity to participate, the nature of the event to which each candidate is invited will be considered, in addition to the manner of presentation. For example, an organization that invites one candidate to speak at its well attended annual banquet, but invites the opposing candidate to speak at a sparsely attended general meeting, will likely have violated the political campaign prohibition, even if the manner of presentation for both speakers is otherwise neutral.

b) Public Forum

When an organization invites several candidates for the same office to speak at a public forum, factors in determining whether the forum results in political campaign intervention include the following:

  • Whether questions for the candidates are prepared and presented by an  independent nonpartisan panel,
  • Whether the topics discussed by the candidates cover a broad range of issues that the candidates would address if elected to the office sought and are of interest to the public,
  • Whether each candidate is given an equal opportunity to present his or her view on each of the issues discussed,
  • Whether the candidates are asked to agree or disagree with positions, agendas, platforms or statements of the organization, and
  • Whether a moderator comments on the questions or otherwise implies approval or disapproval of the candidates.

Situation 7. President E is the president of Society N, a historical society that is a section 501(c)(3) organization. In the month prior to the election, President E invites the three Congressional candidates for the district in which Society N is located to address the members, one each at a regular meeting held on three successive weeks. Each candidate is given an equal opportunity to address and field questions on a wide variety of topics from the members.

Society N's publicity announcing the dates for each of the candidate’s speeches and President E's introduction of each candidate include no comments on their qualifications or any indication of a preference for any candidate. Society N's actions do not constitute political campaign intervention.

Situation 8. The facts are the same as in Situation 7 except that there are four candidates in the race rather than three, and one of the candidates declines the invitation to speak. In the publicity announcing the dates for each of the candidate's speeches, Society N includes a statement that the order of the speakers was determined at random and the fourth candidate declined the Society's invitation to speak. President E makes the same statement in his opening remarks at each of the meetings where one of the candidates is speaking. Society N's actions do not constitute political campaign intervention.

Situation 9. Minister F is the minister of Church O, a section 501(c)(3) organization. The Sunday before the November election, Minister F invites Senate Candidate X to preach to her congregation during worship services. During his remarks, Candidate X states, "I am asking not only for your votes, but for your enthusiasm and dedication, for your willingness to go the extra mile to get a very large turnout on Tuesday." Minister F invites no other candidate to address her congregation during the Senatorial campaign. Because these activities take place during official church services, they are attributed to Church O. By selectively providing church facilities to allow Candidate X to speak in support of his campaign, Church O's actions constitute political campaign intervention.

c) Candidate Appearances Where Speaking or Participating as a Non-Candidate

Candidates may also appear or speak at organization events in a non-candidate capacity. For instance, a political candidate may be a public figure who is invited to speak because he or she: (a) currently holds, or formerly held, public office; (b) is considered an expert in a non political field; or (c) is a celebrity or has led a distinguished military, legal, or public service career. A candidate may choose to attend an event that is open to the public, such as a lecture, concert or worship service. The candidate's presence at an organization-sponsored event does not, by itself, cause the organization to be engaged in political campaign intervention. However, if the candidate is publicly recognized by the organization, or if the candidate is invited to speak, factors in determining whether the candidate's appearance results in political campaign intervention include the following:

  • Whether the individual is chosen to speak solely for reasons other than candidacy for public office;
  • Whether the individual speaks only in a non-candidate capacity;
  • Whether either the individual or any representative of the organization makes any mention of his or her candidacy or the election;
  • Whether any campaign activity occurs in connection with the candidate's attendance;
  • Whether the organization maintains a nonpartisan atmosphere on the premises or at the event where the candidate is present; and
  • Whether the organization clearly indicates the capacity in which the candidate is appearing and does not mention the individual's political candidacy or the upcoming election in the communications announcing the candidate's attendance at the event.

For scenarios of what is or is not political campaign intervention in this area, see situations 10-13 in IRS Ruling 2007-41, p. 7-8.

3) Voter Guides[6]

Voter guides are usually pamphlets or other short documents, often in chart form, intended to help voters compare candidates' positions on a set of issues. Preparing or distributing a voter guide may violate the prohibition against political campaign intervention if the guide focuses on a single issue or narrow range of issues, or if the questions are structured to reflect bias. Although any document that identifies candidates and their positions close in time to an election has the potential to result in political campaign intervention, preparation or distribution of voter guides, because of their nature, present a particular risk for noncompliance.  The following factors are key considerations in whether a voter guide can be distributed to educate voters without violating the prohibition on political campaign intervention:

  • Whether the questions and any other description of the issues are clear and unbiased in both their structure and content.
  • Whether the questions posed or provided to the candidates are identical to [the questions] included in the voter guide.
  • Whether the candidates are given a reasonable amount of time to respond to the questions. If the candidate is given limited choices for an answer to a question (e.g. yes/no, support/oppose), whether the candidate is also given a reasonable opportunity to explain his position in his own words and that explanation is included in the voter guide.
  • Whether the answers in the voter guide are those provided by the candidates in response to the questions, including whether the candidate's answers are unedited, and whether they appear in close proximity to the question to which they respond.
  • Whether all candidates for a particular office are covered.
  • Whether the number of questions, and the subjects covered, are sufficient to encompass most major issues of interest to the entire electorate.

In assessing whether a voter guide is unbiased and nonpartisan, every aspect of the voter guide's format, content and distribution must be taken into consideration.  If the organization's position on one or more issues is set out in the guide so that it can be compared to the candidates' positions, the guide will constitute political campaign intervention.

An organization may be asked to distribute voter guides prepared by a third party.  Each organization that distributes one or more voter guides is responsible for its own actions.  If the voter guide is biased, distribution of the voter guide is an act of political campaign intervention.  Therefore, an organization should reach its own independent conclusion about whether a voter guide prepared by itself or prepared by a third party covers a broad scope of issues and uses neutral form and content.

4) Voter Registration and Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) Drives[7]

Section 501(c)(3) organizations are permitted to conduct certain voter education activities (including the presentation of public forums and the publication of voter education guides) if they are carried out in a nonpartisan manner. In addition, section 501(c)(3) organizations may encourage people to participate in the electoral process through voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, conducted in a nonpartisan manner. On the other hand, voter education or registration activities conducted in a biased manner that favors (or opposes) one or more candidates is prohibited.

Example 1: B, a section 501(c)(3) organization that promotes community involvement, sets up a booth at the state fair where citizens can register to vote. The signs and banners in and around the booth give only the name of the organization, the date of the next upcoming statewide election, and notice of the opportunity to register. No reference to any candidate or political party is made by the volunteers staffing the booth or in the materials available at the booth, other than the official voter registration forms which allow registrants to select a party affiliation. B is not engaged in political campaign intervention when it operates this voter registration booth.

Example 2: C is a section 501(c)(3) organization that educates the public on environmental issues. Candidate G is running for the state legislature and an important element of her platform is challenging the environmental policies of the incumbent.  Shortly before the election, C sets up a telephone bank to call registered voters in the district in which Candidate G is seeking election. In the phone conversations, C's representative tells the voter about the importance of environmental issues and asks questions about the voter's views on these issues. If the voter appears to agree with the incumbent's position, C's representative thanks the voter and ends the call. If the voter appears to agree with Candidate G's position, C’s representative reminds the voter about the upcoming election, stresses the importance of voting in the election and offers to provide transportation to the polls. C is engaged in political campaign intervention when it conducts this get-out-the-vote drive.

In order to qualify as nonpartisan, voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives cannot be biased for or against any candidate or party. Some commentators suggest that it is acceptable for nonprofits to focus their efforts in nonpartisan ways, such as on low-turnout areas, low-income populations, minority populations, students, and/or the areas or people the nonprofits serve.[8]

Footnotes

  1. IRS Revenue Ruling 2007-41, 2007-25 I.R.B. (June 18, 2007), p. 1.
  2. IRS Revenue Ruling 2007-41, p. 2.
  3. Section C1c is a direct quote from IRS Revenue Ruling 2007-41, p. 10-11.
  4. Section C1d is a direct quote from IRS Revenue Ruling 2007-41, p. 4.
  5. Section C2 is a direct quote from IRS Revenue Ruling 2007-41, p. 5-7.
  6. Section C3 is a direct quote from IRS memo FS-2006-17, February 2006.
  7. Except for the final paragraph (see next reference), Section C4 is a direct quote from IRS Revenue Ruling 2007-41, p. 3-4
  8. This final paragraph is derived from "Minnesota Participation Project: Election Cycle Dos and Don'ts for 501(c)(3) Organizations," available at NP Action.

For more information contact socialjustice @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 13, 2012.

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