Paradise Hills residents have been contacting Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers expressing their irritation and asking if it is legal for the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, which dominates their neighborhood, to display political signs opposing Proposition 106, the “Colorado End of Life Options Act,” on their lawns along the streets on two sides of their property.
Proposition 106 would give terminally-ill patients 18 years or older the right to obtain life-ending sleeping medication from a licensed doctor.Two doctors would have to confirm the prognosis; the patient must be given information about other care and treatment options, and must affirm he or she is making a voluntary and informed decision in requesting the medication. The measure would require patients to have a prognosis of death within six months. The patient would have to make two oral requests for the medication to their doctor at least 15 days apart, as well as submit one written request. The measure is aimed at minimizing the suffering of terminally ill people in Colorado prior to their inevitable death.
The Archdiocese of Denver has put $1 million into fighting the measure, and is joined in its opposition by Focus on the Family and Colorado Christian University, which also have donated thousands towards defeating the measure.
Is It Legal for a Church to Engage in Politics?
Egged on by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a sort of right-wing, religious counterpart to the ALCU that sues to inject religion into the public sphere, in recent years churches have increasingly defied IRS rules and intentionally worked to influence politics, and now Immaculate Heart of Mary Church is jumping into the fray. Churches are IRS registered 501-c-3 charities, and in exchange for agreeing to the terms of their IRS designation, they get the privilege of paying no tax on their income, and avoiding paying property taxes.
But the IRS does not permit churches to endorse or oppose any candidate for public office, period. Doing so is considered politicking and is completely out of bounds. However, churches get a bit more leeway when it comes to initiatives and referenda, because they are legislative measures, and advocating for or against them is considered “lobbying” rather than “politicking.” Churches can engage in a limited amount of lobbying, as long as they do not engage in “substantial” lobbying, for example by spending “substantial” time and money on a campaign for or against a measure, or on attempting to influence the greater public. What constitutes “substantial” lobbying, however, is subject to evaluation by the IRS.
Another question is whether a church is attempting to influence only it’s own parish members or the greater public as to how to vote on a ballot issue. Placing lawn signs along a public roadway arguably is an attempt to influence a greater audience beyond just members of its own congregation. This can constitute electioneering, and potentially put a church’s activities out of bounds. It also raises other questions about the whether the lobbying crosses a line, because local taxpayers — including people who don’t belong to the church — are technically subsidizing the display of lawn signs placed on a church’s tax-exempt property.
Churches Must Report All Political Activity to the IRS, & IF They Don’t. You Can Report it For Them
Churches must report to the IRS any activity they engage in that is aimed at influencing the general public to vote a certain way on a ballot measure. If a church puts up a sign that clearly urges people to vote one way or another a ballot initiative, it may need to register as a campaign committee or, at the very least, report the sign(s) as in-kind contribution. The reason is because churches must be held accountable for their politicking, since by using signage on their premises or their marquees to try to influence the outcome of an election, they are forcing taxpayers to subsidize their political speech.
In any case, a church that engages in attempts to influence the greater public in an election walks a thin line and, depending on their activities, might be violating the terms of their IRS 501-c-3 charitable designation. The IRS will need to evaluate whether a church has violated the terms of their charitable designation, or not.
With that in mind, if you feel that a church in your neighborhood is violating the law, the best thing to do is to document the perceived violation with photographs, dates and times and submit a formal complaint to the IRS using the Department of the Treasury’s Internal Revenue Service Form 13909: Tax-Exempt Organization Complaint form (pdf). You can fill the form out online and send it in to the IRS, along with any supporting documentation, via the U.S. mail to
IRS EO Classification
Mail Code 4910DAL
1100 Commerce Street Dallas, TX 75242-1198
…or fax it to (214) 413-5415, or email it to email@example.com