Can Your Church Influence Legislation?

Written by Raul Rivera on Sep 05, 2019 in IRS Compliance

The 2020 United States presidential election is on the horizon. It will not be long before we see advertisements for political campaigns and are bombarded with the latest election news and polls.

Knowing that it is in our near future can be a little exhausting for some people, and for churches, the coming election can also be confusing. Many pastors ask themselves, “What can I say or not say to my congregation?”

While voting for the next leader of our country is important, the other issues on the ballot can, and will, also shape the future of our communities. 

Consider the most recent laws that have been passed in some states pertaining to abortion. Have these laws already affected your church? How might any future laws impact your community? 

While we can only guess the answer to the second question, we must be able to answer the following question first: 

What can your church do when it comes to influencing voting and legislation?

Impacting legislation

The internal revenue code does set some clear parameters for a church’s involvement in legislation. Section 501(c)(3) limits organizations from engaging in substantial efforts to influence legislation. However, what does “substantial” actually mean? The IRS leaves it up to interpretation. 

IRS Publication 1828 tells us that, “A church or religious organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.”

This publication gives us descriptions of activities that could be considered “attempting to influence legislation.” However, it is important to note that this does not mean that a church must do NOTHING. In fact, this does not mean a church cannot participate in these activities, only that the activities cannot be a “substantial” part of a church’s activities.

Publication 1828 further explains that activities that would not be considered attempts to influence legislation include

  1. Conducting nonpartisan educational meetings,
  2. Preparing and distributing nonpartisan educational materials, and
  3. Considering public policy issues in a nonpartisan educational manner.

It is important to note that two key factors are that the activities are considered appropriate, as long as they are both nonpartisan (neutral) and educational. The issue is not whether the church can participate in influencing legislation but the size and scope of its participation in legislative influence compared with the church’s activities as a whole. So, how is legislative activity actually measured? Let’s take a look.

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How to measure legislative activity

There are two tests that may be used to determine the substantialness of an organization’s attempt to influence legislation relating to their overall activities:

  1. the substantial part test and 
  2. the expenditure test.

Basically, the expenditure test deals the expenditures related to the lobbying activities and the size of the organization. Expenditures are not able to exceed amounts specified in Section 4911. Because the  expenditure test does not apply to churches, while it does to other types of nonprofits, we will focus on the substantial part test.  

Through the substantial part test, a church’s attempt to influence legislation in relation to its overall activities is determined “substantial” on the basis of all pertinent facts and circumstances in each case.

The IRS considers various factors when determining whether the lobbying activity is substantial.

Some factors include the time devoted to lobbying (by both compensated and volunteer workers), and the expenditures (finances) paid by the organization to conduct the activity.

Essentially, it is not that the church cannot participate in legislative activities; it is only that those activities cannot be substantial.

If your church chooses to participate in legislative activities, examine the time and resources that will be used to help determine the substantialness of the activities. 

The consequences of substantial activity

In the 1960s, there was a tax-exempt ministry founded on spreading Christian principles through radio, television broadcasting, and published literature. 

The ministry encouraged the members of its audience to contact their representatives in Congress in order to influence how they should cast their vote for a number of issues.

As a result, the ministry was notified by the IRS that its status would be revoked for engaging in substantial activity aimed at influencing legislation and for intervening in political campaigns on behalf of candidates running for public office.

The ministry paid the penalties owed and then filed suit in a federal court challenging the IRS.

A federal district court ruled in the ministry’s favor; however, this ruling was reversed by a federal appeals court. (See Christian Echoes National Ministry, Inc. v. the United States, 470 F.2d 849 (10th Cir. 1972) for more details.)

The mistake this ministry encountered was that the majority of its activities were focused on influencing legislation. Perhaps the outcome of the federal appeals court would have been different if the ministry's activities had been less than substantial.

Let your voice be heard

In the tumultuous days that we live in, it is important now more than ever to make sure the Church has a clear voice. The world needs to hear the message of hope and love from the Church. As Christians, living in a country that bases its principles on freedom and democracy, it is our duty to see God’s moral law implemented throughout this great country.

There are people who will tell you that if you become 501(c)(3) approved then your church will no longer have a voice. But that is simply not true. Your church has a voice, so let it be heard.

If you have questions about your church’s activities, or want to learn more about getting 501(c)(3) status, I encourage you to schedule a call today to have one of our specialists call you.

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Please feel free to comment. We always appreciate good dialogue. However, we do moderate each comment to ensure that it is on topic and not derogatory to other participants. We ask that you keep your comments brief and pertinent to the topic so that others may benefit.

Raul Rivera

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