The issue of local churches’ involvement in elections, often present but rarely highlighted, has come to the forefront in Abilene, Texas, Jessica Priest of ProPublica reports. While the Internal Revenue Service has consistently looked away from churches donating or even sermonizing in support of candidates, some in this city of 125,000 did not.
“Voters in West Texas decisively rejected three conservative Christian candidates who campaigned on infusing religious values into local decision making. ... But the support the candidates received from local churches during the race has prompted calls for state and federal investigations and triggered a local political reckoning,” Priest reports. Weldon Hurt, who was elected mayor over one of the candidates, told Priest, “I think there should definitely be some penalties. ... I think there has to be a way to curtail this from happening again. ... I think there should be some discipline to these churches.”
ProPublica and The Texas Tribune reported a day before the May 6 election that “three churches had donated a total of $800 to the campaign of Scott Beard, a pastor who was running for City Council,” Priest writes. The donations violate The Johnson Amendment, a measure named after its author, former president Lyndon B. Johnson from when he was Senate majority leader, which prohibits nonprofits from intervening in political campaigns. “Beard, a senior pastor at Fountaingate Fellowship, said the donations were a mistake and that he would be returning the money. But within days after Beard’s defeat to retired Air Force Col. Brian Yates, a national group that espouses the separation of church and state demanded that the IRS revoke the churches’ tax exemptions.”
Among the three conservatives who lost were some who “touted their involvement in an effort to get abortion outlawed in Abilene. ... And all three candidates spoke about the need to prohibit family-friendly drag shows within the city limits and establish community standards ... [to] protect children. Beard said in interviews that those standards should be based on ‘Judeo-Christian principles’ that he believes serve as the nation’s foundation,” Priest reports.
“Yates, Beard’s opponent, said it was overly simplistic to cast the election as a fight between religious conservatives and fiscal ones. He said he too is a Christian who opposes abortion. A key difference, he said, was that he and his allies don’t believe that establishing community standards is the role of government. ... The local Republican Party endorsed Beard. ... In the end, the three candidates each lost by at least 29 percentage points, according to unofficial final results.”
While Beard’s Johnson Amendment violations may go unchecked — there is only one publicly known example of the IRS revoking a church’s tax exemption — “The church donations may also violate Texas election law, which prohibits both nonprofit and for-profit corporations from making political contributions to candidates or political committees,” Priest notes. “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. ... Violations are considered third-degree felonies. Beard has had at least two pending state ethics complaints filed against his campaign.”