Let’s talk about Politics and the Pulpit.
What Can Pastors Say About Politics? This can be a tough issue, so knowing what pastors can say about politics from the pulpit is of utmost importance. I have been the representative for many churches, and as their legal counsel, I understand that it is difficult to figure out what you can and cannot do as a church institution. This is part of the process that churches have to go through when we look at primaries, general elections, and special elections, and it is an important topic to discuss since these questions are always posed when an election is taking place.
I hope to provide a little clarity about pastors and the pulpit so your church knows exactly what it can and cannot do when it comes to elections.
First we need to talk about a 501(c)(3) non-profit status.
A 501(c)(3) is a non-profit status determination letter that your church can obtain from the IRS stating that your church is tax exempt.
This is something your church may or may not have. And that’s okay, because we have to realize that churches don’t need a 501(c)(3). Now if you have one, great! There are some advantages to having a 501(c)(3) determination letter, but you do not have to have one.
When we talk about not being able to mix church and state from the pulpit as a 501(c)(3), one of the questions we have to ask is, “What is the actual harm?”
Well, the worst case scenario is that the IRS would come and say that you are no longer able to have a non-profit determination letter and you are no longer a 501(c)(3). Well, that’s okay! You are still a church. You can still take in donations that are counted as charitable donations from the members of your church who give to support your church. You are still not going to pay income taxes on that as the church. So even when we talk about the worst case scenario and even if the IRS comes to say you are no longer a non-profit, it’s ok. You are still categorized as a non-profit entity because of your church status and the way your church is set up. There will be no effect from this except for not having your 501(c)(3) determination letter.
Now that we have laid this framework, the main thing we need to talk about is what you can and cannot do if you have a 501(c)(3) determination letter.
If your church has a 501(c)(3) determination letter, let’s talk about two very important issues – what the church can say and what the people within the church can say.
Watch this video as I go in depth about these main three topics as a 501(c)(3) institution.
1. What the church cannot say.
It is important to remember that the church cannot endorse actual political candidates. This is true for candidates running for The President of the United States, a local Board of Directors, or the City Counsel. As the pastor of your church speaking from the pulpit during your message, the IRS has said that you cannot speak to the particular persons running in an election.
2. What the church can say.
Your church can legally lobby for an issue-oriented election, and (shameless plug for the video here) as I tell you in the video, you can talk endlessly about these issues AS THE CHURCH, so watch the video and learn about the safe harbors your church enjoys.
3. What the people within the church can say.
As a pastor of a church, you still have rights. You didn’t check your constitutional rights at the door when you became a pastor. It is important to remember that you can still hold views and make endorsements based on your beliefs not as a “pastor,” but as a person. I will talk more about this in the video.
I think that sometimes churches are reluctant to get involved in politics because they are worried about losing their 501(c)(3). I hope this video helps to bring some clarity about how to navigate the political season with confidence as a 501(c)(3) non-profit status institution.
If you are looking for more information about church law, check out this post on Concealed Carry in the Church and how to implement a Concealed Carry Policy.