Servants' News

Mar/Apr 2003

According to Supreme Court Definition Churches with 501(c)(3) Have Agreed Not to Proclaim Anything

by Norman Edwards

Nearly every Church that applies for IRS tax exempt status under section 501(c)(3) includes this phrase describing itself it its Articles of Incorporation or equivalent:

…no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda…

In other words, these organizations have promised not to “carry on propaganda”. When most people read those words, it appears that a church is promising not to lie or deceive—as in “communist propaganda”. But what does the Supreme Court say?

The statutory definition of “political propaganda” has been on the books for over four decades. 16 We should presume that the people who have a sufficient understanding of the law to know that the term “political propaganda” is used to describe the regulated category also know that the definition is a broad, neutral one rather than a pejorative [negative] one (MEESE v. KEENE, 481 U.S. 465 (1987)).

Note 6 in this Supreme Court Opinion goes on to say:

6 All standard dictionaries include a definition of “propaganda” as the systematic or widespread dissemination or promotion of ideas or doctrines. See, e.g., Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1817 (1976 ed.) (“dissemination of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person”; “doctrines, ideas, arguments, facts, or allegations spread by deliberate effort through any medium of communication in order to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause”; “a publication or display having the purpose or effect of furthering or hindering a cause”); Oxford English Dictionary 1466 (1978 ed.) (“any association, systematic scheme, or concerted movement for the propagation of a particular doctrine or practice”); Random House Dictionary of the English Language 1152 (1966 ed.) (“information, rumors, etc., deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.”).

This Supreme Court case was about the meaning of the words “political propaganda” in the Foreign Agents Registration Act, 22 U.S.C. 611. The essence of this code section requires “foreign agents” to register and report on any “political propaganda” that they distribute in the United States. The case arose when a California State Senator wanted to distribute three films from Canada about acid rain and nuclear war, but felt his reputation would be harmed if he distributed films that had been officially classified “political propaganda”.

The Senator called linguistic expert witnesses who testified that “propaganda” is negative in most people’s minds and that some would not want to see a film that was so classified. A district court agreed with the Senator, so the case went to the Supreme Court where it was reversed. The Supreme Court found that the definition of “propaganda” includes not only negative messages, but anything that one might propagate. The Supreme Court specifically stated that it is irrelevant that most people do not understand the meaning as long as the law itself is clear:

Congress’ use of the term “propaganda” in this statute, as indeed in other legislation, has no pejorative connotation. 19 As judges it is our duty to [481 U.S. 465, 485] construe legislation as it is written, not as it might be read by a layman, or as it might be understood by someone who has not even read it. If the term “political propaganda” is construed consistently with the neutral definition contained in the text of the statute itself, the constitutional concerns voiced by the District Court completely disappear.

The class distinctions here are ironic. Most church pastors refer to themselves as “clergy” and the church brethren as “laymen”. Here, the Supreme Court opinion refers to non-lawyers as “laymen”, and says that it is not responsible if “laymen” do not understand the law. How many hundreds of thousands of pastors have promised the IRS not to “carry on propaganda” and not realized that they have agreed not to propagate anything, including the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Please realize that constitutional rights are not an issue here. The First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Churches are not required to incorporate or file for tax exempt status. IRS publications say that. But if they want these things, there is nothing illegal about them promising to give up their rights in exchange for the “benefits” of incorporation and tax exemption. When Christian Echoes had its tax exempt status removed by the IRS, the 10th District Court said:

In light of the fact that tax exemption is a privilege, a matter of grace rather than right, we [the 10th District Court] hold that the limitations contained in section 501(c)(3) withholding exemption from nonprofit corporations do not deprive Christian Echoes of its constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of speech. (Christian Echoes National Ministry, Inc. v. United States, 470 F.2d 849 (10th Cir. 1972); cert. denied, 414 U.S. 864 (1973)).

The Supreme court declined to hear an appeal of the above case, letting the ruling stand as a legal precedent.

Supreme Court Specifically Addresses Section 501(c)(3)

This writer could not find any cases where the meaning of “propaganda” in section 501(c)(3) was the main subject. However, in the above case, MEESE v. KEENE, 481 U.S. 465 (1987), footnote 7 directly references Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3) [emphasis ours]:

7 We also note that Congress has used the term “propaganda” in a neutral sense in a number of other statutes. See, e.g., 5 U.S.C. 4107; 26 U.S.C. 501(c)(3), 2522(b), 4945(d); 36 U.S.C. 1304. Likewise, this Court has recognized the neutral meaning of the word in referring to a variety of activities as “propaganda”. See, e.g., Lehman v. City of Shaker Heights, 418 U.S. 298, 304 (1974); National Association of Letter Carriers v. Austin, 418 U.S. 264, 280 n.14 (1974); NLRB v. Drivers Local 639, 362 U.S. 274, 279 (1960).

The “26 U.S.C.” highlighted above is the Internal Revenue Code and the “501(c)(3)” is the famous section 501(c)(3). You can also see the other cases cited in various years where “propaganda” has a neutral meaning. No cases or laws were cited where propaganda had only a negative meaning. The law is clear. The IRS can remove the tax exempt status of any church that clearly “propagates” any message.

Has the IRS even done this? This writer believes so, but has not seen the official documents. They are not public record unless there is a court case. When the IRS removes tax exempt status, they usually do it retroactively for several years, resulting in a huge tax bill for the church and loss of deductions for its donors. Often, the church corporation dissolves—sometimes members reform under a new name, sometimes not. But once a church corporation dissolves, its court cases end.

For More Information

The Supreme Court cases cited in this article can be found at the following free website:

More explanation is available in our free 12-page paper, IRS Code Section 501(c)(3) and Churches. Request order code IRSCHU.

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