Is it legal to place political literature on parked cars in the church parking lot or place campaign signs on church property?
You raise an important issue. Let’s take the easy one first.
The IRS would undoubtedly deem it an intervention in a political campaign--and potentially a basis for loss of exemption--for a church or any other Section 501(c)(3) charity to place election campaign signs supporting a candidate for public office on its property. A charity may not engage in any type of official organizational activity in support of or in opposition to any candidate for election at any level of government. (See Ready Reference Page: “Charities May Not Participate in Elections.”)
The political literature issue may be somewhat different depending on who puts the literature on the cars. If the church places the literature, the IRS would deem it an improper political intervention. If someone else put it there, it may not be an official church action, but the church could not be complicit in the distribution and would be wise to remove it immediately or at least see that it doesn’t happen again if it can’t remove it the first time.
If a candidate is speaking at the service, it is likely that campaign workers will attempt to give out literature, either on the windshields or to parishioners as they enter or leave the church. This kind of situation can be very tricky and is likely to be deemed a participation unless all of the candidates are similarly invited.
The IRS put out some guidance on these issues in the last few years that was formalized in a Revenue Ruling that organizations may rely upon for authority. (See Ready Reference Page: “IRS Issues New Guidance on Electioneering.”)
Many churches seem to cross the line in their activities. The IRS has developed a task force to investigate complaints and has revoked exempt status in a few cases and issued warnings in others. Even if an investigation does not result in sanctions, however, responding to the inquiry can be time and attention consuming and very expensive.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010