Texas churches gave $800 to a city council candidate, violating IRS rules
The candidate, Pastor Scott Beard, had also endorsed himself from the pulpit
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Three churches in Texas gave a combined $800 to Scott Beard, the senior pastor at Fountaingate Fellowship church, for his campaign to win a seat on the Abilene City Council. The donations are explicit violations of the IRS rule prohibiting churches (and all other non-profits) from endorsing candidates in an election.
HOW DID BEARD DO?
On Friday, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica published a piece by Jessica Priest and Jeremy Schwartz documenting how Fountaingate Merkel Church, Remnant Church and Hope Chapel Foursquare Church all gave money to Beard’s campaign.
Beard told the reporters that he has since returned all those donations but even he found a way to make this all about Christian persecution:
Beard told ProPublica and the Tribune in a phone interview on Thursday that the churches did not know they weren’t allowed to donate to him and that he has sent the checks back.
“Look, we’ve made mistakes,” he said. “Every campaign makes them. I’m just kind of under the microscope because of me being a pastor, honestly.”
When the reporters contacted the churches to find out why they made these donations, however, they were not told “Oops, just a mistake.”
The pastor at Fountaingate Merkel Church said Beard told him last week that the donation was illegal (possibly after the reporters contacted Beard), but added that “we need to have Christians in politics nowadays,” as if to justify the money. (Also, there’s never been a lack of Christians in politics. Especially in Texas. Meanwhile, the current religious makeup of Congress has Christians at 88%; the number shoots up to 99% when we look at the Republican Party alone.)
Someone at Remnant Church said their $400 donation was meant for Fountaingate Fellowship Church and not Beard’s campaign. How would a mistake like that possible happen? WHO KNOWS.
Hope Chapel Foursquare Church didn’t respond at all to any requests for comment.
Even if a combined $800 doesn’t seem like a lot of money, local races hinge on that kind of cash. You don’t need much money to sway local elections. A pastor who already leads a large congregation already has a leg up. Having an extra $800 for signs and marketing goes a long way.
Incidentally, Texas also has laws against for-profit and non-profit companies making political contributions:
… The donations may also violate Texas election law, which prohibits both nonprofit and for-profit corporations from making political contributions to candidates or political committees. Violations are considered third-degree felonies.
The Texas Ethics Commission is charged with investigating such violations and can assess a civil penalty of up to $5,000 or triple the amount at issue, whichever is greater, said J.R. Johnson, the commission’s executive director. Agency commissioners also have the authority to refer violations to local district attorneys for criminal prosecution, he said.
I’m not going to hold my breath waiting to see if Texas officials will ever go after Christian churches for supporting a conservative candidate.
The reporters also noted the in-kind contributions made by churches during this election cycle. “At least five churches” displayed campaign posters for right-wing candidates (including Beard and another pastor) who have supported book banning and anti-drag policies.
Beard himself isn’t an innocent victim. He has urged his own congregation to grab campaign signs for him after a church service to put in their yards. He’s literally endorsing himself from the pulpit.
All of this merely confirms what atheist activists and white evangelicals have known for decades now: The IRS isn’t doing a damn thing to enforce the Johnson Amendment and stop churches from endorsing or supporting political candidates—even though that violates the terms of their non-profit status.
Even if you don’t care about IRS rules, you need to know this: Just about all non-profit groups (including charities, cause-based organizations, and churches) are considered 501(c)(3)s. With that designation, the IRS is saying these groups are not looking to make a profit but rather serve a greater cause. As a way to encourage people to give money to those groups, contributions to them may be deducted on donors’ taxes. It’s theoretically a win-win for both sides.
To keep the 501(c)(3) designation, though, there are certain rules most of these groups must follow: For example, they have to fill out paperwork each year (a “Form 990”) detailing how much money they took in and how much is getting paid out and to whom.
They also cannot endorse political candidates.
Houses of worship actually get an even sweeter deal. They are automatically granted a tax-exempt status (while secular charities have to fill out paperwork to earn the designation) and they don’t have to fill out the Form 990 at all. (Church/state separation groups have argued that the government’s preferential treatment for houses of worship in that regard is unconstitutional.)
But plenty of conservative pastors still argue that these rules are too onerous and they’ve deliberately tried to goad the IRS into revoking their tax-exempt status just so they can file a lawsuit over it.
For several years during Barack Obama’s presidency, hundreds of evangelical churches participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” where they proudly endorsed Republican candidates and then, just to make sure their actions weren’t ignored, sent videos of those sermons directly to the IRS.
The IRS had every reason to take action and revoke the churches’ tax exemptions. They never did.
In fact, over the past few decades, the IRS has only followed its own rules once. Just before the 1992 elections, a group called Branch Ministries ran full-page newspaper ads urging people not to vote for Bill Clinton. The IRS revoked the group’s tax exempt status. There was a lawsuit. The IRS won. (The Congressional Research Service, a government-backed public policy research institute, said another church also lost its tax exemption in 2012… but no further details are available.)
But that’s it. 70 years of the Johnson Amendment… and maybe two ministries that were punished by the IRS for violating it.
By the time Donald Trump was in office, the violations were even more egregious. There was no need for a concerted effort to endorse candidates because it was apparent to everyone that the IRS wasn’t going to punish pastors for telling church members how to vote. It didn’t help that Trump claimed he got rid of the Johnson Amendment… even though that was a lie. Churches have just been endorsing candidates ever since. While some churches have also endorsed Democrats, this is overwhelmingly a conservative/Republican issue. They’re the ones with the most to lose if the Johnson Amendment was ever enforced.
Last year, the same two reporters (Priest and Schwartz) published a damning piece attempting to get to the bottom of what the IRS was actually doing about these churches that violated the Johnson Amendment. What they discovered was that no one was minding the store.
At least not publicly.
They found 18 churches over the previous two years explicitly violating the Johnson Amendment. (It’s almost certainly many, many more.) These were churches where the actions of the pastors weren’t at all ambiguous. If the IRS enforced its own rules, these churches would have instantly lost their tax exemptions. None of them did, and that’s because the IRS didn’t seem to care:
… The IRS has largely abdicated its enforcement responsibilities as churches have become more brazen. In fact, the number of apparent violations found by ProPublica and the Tribune, and confirmed by three nonprofit tax law experts, are greater than the total number of churches the federal agency has investigated for intervening in political campaigns over the past decade, according to records obtained by the news organizations.
In response to questions, an IRS spokesperson said that the agency “cannot comment on, neither confirm nor deny, investigations in progress, completed in the past nor contemplated.” Asked about enforcement efforts over the past decade, the IRS pointed the news organizations to annual reports that do not contain such information.
Why was the IRS acting like the CIA? No clue. They were saying they couldn’t confirm or deny investigations into churches that were openly and brazenly violating the law as if enforcing rules that were purposely broken amounted to some sort of national security issue.
It didn’t help that the IRS needed a high-level official signing off on such investigations for a while, and that no one was employed in that position, “leaving lower IRS employees to initiate church investigations.” Nor did it help that the IRS just stopped looking at churches’ political activity for several years during the Obama administration.
As Andrew Seidel of Americans United for Separation of Church and State told the reporters at the time, churches already don’t tell the IRS how much money they’re taking in or where it’s going. By giving them enough leeway to endorse candidates, the IRS was “essentially creating super PACs that are black holes.”
Here’s how useless the IRS is when it comes to prosecuting churches that violate their rules:
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from ProPublica and the Tribune last year, the IRS produced a severely redacted spreadsheet indicating the agency had launched inquiries into 16 churches since 2011. IRS officials shielded the results of the probes, and they have declined to answer specific questions.
Just 16?! What is the point of reporting churches to the IRS if no one’s paying any attention to the complaints? And what does it even mean that they’ve “launched” inquiries? If hundreds of pastors are prodding the IRS to come after them by telling people how to vote, and the IRS is barely lifting a finger—and, even then, only against a few of those churches—what the hell are they doing? (It’s still not clear if the new IRS funding passed by Democrats will mean the agency will more seriously investigate churches.)
Ultimately, this all boils down to one question: If the IRS isn’t going to enforce its rules, then what’s the point of having them?
Either the IRS needs to eliminate the Johnson Amendment and allow all non-profits to have the option of playing politics, or it must enforce the rules even if that means going after Christian churches. Those churches will inevitably cry “persecution” like Beard did. They always do whenever their privilege gets checked. But as usual, they’d really just be whining about how the rules are being applied to them, too. They hate having to play by the same rules as everybody else.
The irony in all this is that the churches pushing to repeal the Johnson Amendment say they’re doing it because they don’t want to be beholden to the government. They say they want the freedom to preach whatever they want, including political endorsements, and they don’t want the government telling them what they can’t say. And yet, by opposing the Johnson Amendment and by demanding a right to promote candidates, they’re effectively becoming tools of the Republican Party.
Incidentally, the elections ended yesterday, and while the results are not official just yet, Beard appears to be losing to opponent Brian Yates by a wide margin. (Yates has 65% of the votes.)
Even if that’s how this ends, Beard’s allies shouldn’t be off the hook. Churches who endorse a losing candidate are still churches who endorsed a candidate, and they deserve to lose their tax-exempt statuses as a result.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)
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TAX THE FUCKING CHURCHES.!!!
Conservative Christians are the first people to claim they're being persecuted any time they're prevented from forcing their views on others. They are also the people most likely to persecute others if given the chance. If you want to see what genuine persecution looks like, . . . hand power to the preachers.