In a clear violation of IRS regulations, three West Texas churches have recently made financial contributions to Scott Beard, a pastor running for a contested seat on the Abilene City Council. Fountaingate Merkel Church, Remnant Church, and Hope Chapel Foursquare Church collectively donated $800 to Beard’s campaign, despite federal rules that prohibit nonprofits and churches from endorsing candidates.
This brazen move highlights a concerning trend of churches across Texas and the United States becoming increasingly involved in political campaigns. According to IRS guidelines, campaign contributions from churches and other nonprofits “clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.” Loyola University Chicago law professor Sam Brunson, who specializes in religion and tax exemption, affirms that this is something every church should know and probably does.
Despite the existence of the Johnson Amendment, a law passed by Congress in 1954 to prevent churches from endorsing candidates, enforcement remains lax. The IRS has the power to strip violators of their tax-exempt status, but there is only one known example of this happening nearly 30 years ago. Brunson argues that the lack of enforcement has emboldened bad actors and calls for Congress to grant the IRS authority to fine violators explicitly.
In response to the revelation of the churches’ donations, Beard claims the churches were unaware of the prohibition and that he has since returned the checks. However, the story raises questions about the increasing entanglement of religious institutions in politics and the need for better enforcement of existing regulations.
Local races, like the one in Abilene, are typically lower-dollar affairs than legislative elections or statewide offices, and these small donations may also violate Texas election law. The Texas Ethics Commission is responsible for investigating violations and can impose penalties of up to $5,000 or triple the amount in question, whichever is greater.
As millennial readers of The Young Turks, it’s crucial to recognize the blurring of lines between religious institutions and political campaigns. The intertwining of church and state undermines the democratic process and threatens the separation of powers. It’s time to hold these institutions accountable and demand better enforcement of existing regulations to protect the integrity of our political system.