Dear David Barton, There Is a Difference Between ‘Nonprofit’ and ‘Tax Exempt’

On his “WallBuilders Live” radio program today, religious right pseudo-historian David Barton falsely claimed that churches are free to “get involved in politics” because other “nonprofit” organizations like Planned Parenthood are doing so.

“If churches are tax-exempt, we’re told they cannot get involved in politics, right?” Barton said. “That’s what everybody tells churches: you can’t get involved in politics. May I point out something? I did not realize this until this week from this standpoint. Did you know that Planned Parenthood is the same nonprofit that the church is? Now has anybody told Planned Parenthood they can’t be involved in politics?”

“They’re endorsing candidates like crazy. They’re pouring millions into electing Democrats. How come we’re not?” he continued. “We ought to be saying to churches, ‘Hey, you’re nonprofit, Planned Parenthood is nonprofit. Don’t tie your hands behind your back. Why don’t you get as bold as Planned Parenthood?’ I mean, their speaking out about candidates, and philosophies, and about who needs to be in office. I just thought that that was a really cool reminder that when you look at Planned Parenthood, nobody goes after them saying, ‘Hey, you’re a nonprofit, you can’t get involved in politics,’ but they’re going after churches. So we need to recognize that we’ve got greater standing than we think we do and, my gosh, don’t tie our hands behind our backs and get silent, especially as this election is approaching.”

As Barton ought to know, there is a very important difference between a nonprofit organization like a church and one like Planned Parenthood, which is that Planned Parenthood has created an affiliated 501(c)(4) organization called Planned Parenthood Action specifically to engage in political advocacy because 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations like the Planed Parenthood Federation of America—and all churches—are prohibited from doing so by the IRS.

As the IRS explains, while both are nonprofit organizations, 501(c)(3) “organizations are restricted in how much political and legislative (lobbying) activities they may conduct,” whereas 501(c)(4) organizations “may further its exempt purposes through lobbying as its primary activity without jeopardizing its exempt status.”

Donations made to 501(c)(3) organizations like the Planned Parenthood Federation of America are tax-exempt, but donations made to 501(c)(4) organizations are not, as Planned Parenthood explains on its website:

Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) works to support health care providers at Planned Parenthood health centers across the country, educate the public on issues of reproductive and sexual health, and advocate for policy to expand access to health care. PPFA is a 501(c)(3) organization, and donations are tax-deductible to the fullest extent allowable under the law.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PPAF) is the advocacy and political arm of Planned Parenthood, fighting to advance and expand access to sexual health care and defend reproductive rights. PPAF is a 501(c)(4) organization, and donations are not tax-deductible as a charitable contribution or business expense.

Churches are tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations, meaning that their ability to “get involved in politics” is restricted. If churches want to engage in politics, they need to set up a non tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organization like everyone else and not, as Barton suggests, simply use their tax-exempt 501(c)(3) donations to start “pouring millions into electing” candidates for office.