What Churches Can and Cannot Say During Elections

It's election season, and with it comes some uncertainty about how—if at all—churches can interact with political campaigns and candidates. There is also the larger question of whether or not churches should do anything beyond educating their people about the issues and praying for people elected to public office. It all seems a bit confusing.

To gain perspective about the mechanics of what churches can and cannot do and what the consequences might be, UBA Executive Director Josh Ellis reached out to Dr. Marvin McNeese Jr, a political science professor at the College of Biblical Studies and a Deacon at Houston's First Baptist Church. In full disclosure, Dr. McNeese is also a candidate for Houston City Council. UBA does not endorse any candidates for public office in local or other elections. Dr. McNeese does, however, have some helpful words about the legality of our words and actions as churches. 

The Johnson Amendment

In spite of the freedom of speech being granted all persons in the First Amendment, churches are not completely free to speak politically. Lynden B. Johnson sponsored an amendment to a tax bill adopted in 1954 that attempted to distinguish political-oriented nonprofits from charitable ones. For 60 years up to that point, the Federal government had granted certain tax benefits to charitable nonprofits in recognition of the societal benefit of their charitable work. 

Post WWII, lawmakers began to worry about non-charitable nonprofits operating as charities and about the non-charitable activities of the otherwise charitable nonprofits. They did not want these non-charitable nonprofits and activities to enjoy the same, if any, tax benefits as charitable ones. So, as the Minority Leader in the Senate, Johnson pushed the following key clause, into the U.S. Tax Code to distinguish political nonprofits from charitable ones. It is now referred to as the “Johnson Amendment”:

A charitable corporation “does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) enforces the tax code and therefore interprets what this clause means for churches. This short article explains the current legal limitation on political speech from churches.

What Churches Cannot “Say” Politically

I write “say” in quotation marks because the clause indicates that it is not just speech or communications that can cross the line, but any type of church activity. 

In short, a church, in its capacity as a church, cannot help or hurt a particular candidate currently running for election. As further refined by the IRS, this means that neither the representatives, resources, nor regular proceedings of the church can be used to benefit a singular candidate. 

The easy rule of thumb is this: if it’s a regular part of "church,” don’t use it for any one candidate’s campaign.

Pastors need to prepare their congregations for political messaging by continually teaching them about the Bible’s relevance to political issues and its mandate that we pray for political leaders.

What Churches Can “Say” Politically

Churches can “speak” of all candidates collectively as a charitable service. So, making parishioners know that an election is coming, conducting voter registration drives, being a polling location, even publishing (Internet included) all the candidates’ responses on issues that are important to the church as a voter guide are all permissible since they benefit the public without benefitting any candidate singularly. 

Churches can “speak” of political issues that are not tied to current candidates for office.  Churches can address issues that are important to the church, even if those issues are being affected in current legislation or elections through a ballot measure. Churches are safest in doing this when their speech is motivated by its regular teaching or charitable work, but even that is not required. 

Also, individual persons still enjoy free speech, even if churches do not. Any pastor, staff or church volunteer can personally communicate whatever political message they want, as long as they do so not as a representative of the church, nor using the church’s resources, nor during the church’s regular proceedings.  

One might object: “a pastor is always a pastor,” meaning that a pastor is always seen as representing their church. Legally, this is not true. It is legally acceptable that Pastor John Smith, for example, allow candidate Jane Doe to publicize that John Smith, Pastor of Bible Church, endorses her candidacy, since the pastor’s occupation is simply a descriptor of him as an individual. It is also legally acceptable for Pastor John Smith to broadcast on his personal, social media accounts that he endorses Jane Doe for office. In the eyes of the law, an individual always enjoys free speech protections when acting as an individual.

Lastly, individual candidates can “speak” during regular proceedings if doing so in a capacity other than as a current candidate for election, typically based on their expertise in some non-election capacity.  

What are the Penalties for Political Church Speech?

It is important to remember that this entire “Johnson Amendment” business can only affect the tax benefits a church enjoys—exemption from Federal Income taxes, most state, and local taxes, and its donors can deduct donations from their income. The IRS cannot shut down a church. No church official will be put in jail. This has only to do with tax benefits.

A more important “penalty” is a possible negative reaction from the congregation. Public opinion polls often show that half of the populace does not believe that pastors and church leaders should be communicating anything but “faith” and “love.” Undoubtedly, many congregants feel the same way. 

Pastors need to make sure that they have prepared their congregations for political messaging by teaching them continually about the Bible’s relevance to political issues and its mandate that we pray (and otherwise act, I would argue) for political leaders since government that enables peaceful and quiet living aids the Gospel (1 Tim 2:1-7).

Dr. Marvin McNeese, Jr. is Professor of Government and Chair of General Education at the College of Biblical Studies, with campuses in Houston and Indiana.  He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Rice University. He serves as a Deacon at Houston’s First Baptist Church. He is a husband of 16 years and a father of four.