The Real Rules
Congregations and the IRS Guidelines On Advocacy, Lobbying, and Elections
Religious individuals and groups have played a prophetic role in public life throughout history by calling attention to oppression, demanding change, and holding leaders and institutions accountable for their actions and policies. While this is still true in the United States today, too many people are under the false impression that religious organizations cannot have a voice in the public policy arena as a result of the Constitutional separation of church and state or Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations. In reality, there are many activities that any religious group can do without jeopardizing its nonprofit tax-exempt status. There are restrictions on certain kinds of political actions, but the range of what is acceptable is wide enough to exhaust the time and resources of any congregation without crossing any regulatory lines.
This guide is composed largely of direct quotes from the most recent and relevant IRS publications, organized in a way that is intended to be user-friendly. All references are clearly documented with footnotes. The most authoritative IRS publication on nonprofits and electoral/political activity is Revenue Ruling 2007-41, released June 18, 2007. While an excellent source of information, it is not designed for a general audience. The more accessible IRS resource is publication 1828, Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organizations (Rev. 08-2015). To access these documents, see “Section F: Additional Information and References” on page 21.
This document was last revised October 2016.
This resource is not intended to be formal legal advice; nor should it be used in place of legal counsel. It is intended to clarify Internal Revenue Service guidelines as they relate to religious organizations in the hope that more congregations will (1) choose to become involved in working for justice; and (2) know when it is important to seek legal advice.
This guide was researched and initially compiled by a volunteer, David S. May, a lawyer and member of Emerson Unitarian Church in Houston, TX. Many thanks to David for his hard work. Final production was done by Rev. Rob Keithan, Director of the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy. This most recent version was also updated by Rev. Keithan in his capacity as an independent Faith Organizing and Training Consultant. The UUA would also like to acknowledge the Alliance for Justice, whose publication The Rules of the Game: An Election Year Legal Guide for Nonprofit Organizations provided the general outline for this guide. The Alliance for Justice offers many relevant resources; please see “Section F: Additional Information and References” on page 21 for their contact information.