What President Trump’s Executive Order Means for 501(c)(3) Political Activity

Recently, President Trump signed his Executive Order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.”  It directs the Secretary of the Treasury to exercise discretion to avoid taking any adverse action against an individual, house of worship, or religious organization that speaks about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, including the revocation of 501(c)(3) status.  According to President Trump, this Executive Order “removes the financial threat faced by tax-exempt churches from the Internal Revenue Service when pastors speak out on behalf of political candidates.”

Under the Internal Revenue Code, 501(c)(3) charitable organizations are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity.  This means: making political contributions, making statements that endorse or oppose a candidate, and asking candidates to sign pledges on any issue.  However, charitable organizations are allowed to engage in limited non-partisan activity, such as: voter-registration drives, limited lobbying on ballot initiatives, and educating candidates on issues that fall under the purview of the entity.  Also, the officers, directors, and employees of a 501(c)(3) retain the right to personally engage in partisan political activity.

So, does this Executive Order free religious 501(c)(3) charitable organizations to engage in partisan political activity without fear of tax-exempt status revocation?  Perhaps not. While the Executive Order may promote more relaxed enforcement, the restrictions on partisan political activity still exist in statute and legislative action would be required to change the law. In addition, this Executive Order may face legal challenges in court. The Executive Order also raises the question whether churches should be treated differently from non-religious 501(c)(3) entities. Until and unless the statute is changed, 501(c)(3) organizations would do well to refrain from participating in partisan political activity.

For more information on how this Executive Order may effect you, please contact Rebecca Moll Freed, Esq., Chair of the Corporate Political Activity Law Group, at rfreed@genovaburns.com or 973-230-2075.