Being a public church
Guidance for churches and clergy participating in the electoral process
Lutherans understand that governments are a means through which God can work to preserve creation and build a more peaceful and just society. As a public church, we have a responsibility to address issues that affect our neighbors in communities throughout the world. Through advocacy efforts, ELCA members and other Christians can work through governmental channels on behalf of biblical values. Participating in the electoral process is one way in which ELCA members live out the public witness of advocacy.
An important part of faithful civic engagement is abiding by the law: any participation by congregations in activities related to the electoral process must be strictly nonpartisan and abide by IRS guidelines. Congregations and clergy must ensure that activities related to the electoral process are transparent, nonpartisan and legal.
The information provided is accurate to the best knowledge of the ELCA Washington Office, and this information is believed to be current and nonpartisan. No resources can substitute for checking with the IRS, federal and state agencies administering election laws, and an attorney regarding the extent to which a congregation and/or its religious leaders can be involved in specific political activities.
IRS Guidelines for Congregations with 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Status
Why is it important to understand my tax status when planning political activity?
ELCA clergy, congregations, synodical offices, seminaries and college or university campus ministry groups can, and should, play a longer-term and vital role in Lutheran civic engagement, and in election years, by encouraging communities to vote.
However, before you begin, it is also important to know which political activities are permissible and which are unacceptable under the auspices of your 501(c)(3) tax status. Non-compliance with IRS Tax Code 501(c)(3) can mean a loss of your institution’s tax exempt status.
Click here for more information on permissible and non-permissible activities in an election season.
What constitutes nonpartisan electoral activity?
According to the IRS, “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” IRS language can seem insurmountable and overwhelming, but this guide attempts to break down legal text into digestible bites, and opens up many opportunities for things that you CAN do, as long as they’re nonpartisan.
Focus on activities that are intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process. These can include, but are not limited to, nonpartisan voter registration and Get-Out-The-Vote campaigns, sponsoring candidate forums, and becoming a polling location. Remember, voter education or registration activities conducted by the church are not permissible if they show evidence of a bias that:
(a) Would favor one candidate over another;
(b) Oppose a candidate in some manner; or
(c) Have the perceived effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates.
Participating in the electoral process is just one way to speak out for peacemaking, hospitality to strangers, care for creation, and concern for people living in poverty and struggling with hunger and disease. Year-round, thousands of ELCA members advocate for public policy that will help their neighbors near and far — click here to join this growing network of Lutherans now.
Click here for more information from the ELCA regarding tax status and political activity.