Pastor, Protect Your Freedom of Speech

Written by Christine Bove on Sep 12, 2019 in Pastoral Helps

As of late, former Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran is expecting a payout of $1.2 million from the City of Atlanta, Georgia. He was released from his position in 2015 because of a devotional book he wrote, which briefly mentioned the Biblical view of marriage. 

After a three-year legal battle, the Federal District Court ruled that his termination was unconstitutional.

What is in place to protect pastors who want to do something similar to Fire Chief Cochran? How can a pastor exercise his or her constitutional right to freedom of speech while at the same time comply with the IRS requirements?

Balancing IRS regulations and the First Amendment

For further details of the former fire chief’s story, writer Steve Warren on CBN News wrote it in its entirety here. 

In this article, Alliance for Defending Freedom’s Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot states, “The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before they engage in free speech. It also can’t fire them for exercising that First Amendment freedom, causing them to lose both their freedom and their livelihoods…” 

For pastors, there is a delicate tension to manage. The balance is between adhering to nonprofit regulations and exercising the right to free speech. Pastors who do not effectively use their First Amendment right put their church or nonprofit in jeopardy. 

Understanding IRS regulations will help protect the church’s nonprofit status. 

IRS restrictions

Found in Publication 4221-PC, there are three primary restrictions for churches and nonprofits to abide by:

      • No Private Benefit or Inurement
      • No Political Campaign Intervention
      • No Legislative Activities

Pastors are not able to use the church as a platform for their individual voice. Outside of the church platform, they can. However, even as the head leader, a pastor is not able to use the church platform for personal political influences.

Pastors can balance this tension by using the church platform to discuss moral issues or Biblical topics, which could be political in nature. Pastors, however, will not mention nor point to a political party or endorse or oppose a candidate. They also cannot make emphatic statements that can be construed as breaching IRS regulations.

Pastors also balance this tension by publishing their own work outside of their position. These projects can look like writing a book, devotional, or blog. When pastors publicize their work, they indicate that it is their own voice and opinion, not their organization’s. This differentiates the pastor from the organization, so it is not reflective of the views of the organization, but rather of the pastors.

Doing this will protect your church or ministry from infringing on the regulations set forth by the IRS.

Further details on the parameters the IRS has established for churches and religious nonprofits can be found in Publication 1828. 

How to protect your work outside of the church

There are ways to protect both the organization and the pastor. 

Employment agreements are an excellent way to protect the organization and the pastor. In former Fire Chief Cochran’s case, an employment agreement would have been better protections for the city of Atlanta and himself. It would have detailed the work he does outside of his official position with the fire department would not in any way reflect the city.

For example, blogs are a great platform for sharing the Gospel. If a pastor wanted to start his or her own blog, it could be done on their own resources. This includes using personal time, a personal computer, and finances. Through the blog, the pastor could state personal beliefs and opinions without a connection to the church. 

In this way, both the church’s tax-exempt status and the pastor’s right to freedom of speech are protected. You can learn more about how to start a pastoral blog in our previous blog post here.

The employment agreement

A key protective document to put into place is the employee agreement. 

This agreement is a written contract between the organization and the employee. A comprehensive agreement should cover:

  • The job description 
  • Insurance
  • Salary and taxes
  • Termination
  • Time off
  • And more.

An employment agreement defines expectations, reasonable compensation, and protection for the employer and employee. Employee agreements are approved through the church’s board of directors. They then become the guiding documents for the pastoral compensation. 

We have a service to help create a comprehensive compensation agreement for pastors and ministers. Click here for more information or call us at 770-638-3444. 

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Prepared for creative freedom

The First Amendment is such a blessing. It allows pastors and leaders to preach the Gospel and voice our opinions openly without fear of government retaliation. 

The key for churches is to create a distinction between their pastors’ personal opinions and beliefs and the voice of the church. In this way, both the church’s tax-exempt status and the pastor’s freedom of speech are preserved. An employee agreement is one of the best tools to help churches create that distinction. 

We love partnering with pastors to make sure they are each set up for the best possible success. If you have further questions about the employee agreement or any of our services, please call us at 770-638-3444. Or, click on the button below to schedule a call and have a specialist call you. 

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Raul Rivera

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