Idaho GOP Rep. Raul Labrador, who is running for governor, is touting his endorsement by the pastor of a Coeur d’Alene church where Labrador recently held a large town hall-style gathering.
It comes as U.S. House Republicans push to free up pastors to openly endorse candidates from the pulpit.
But that’s not the law now – and experts say Labrador is pushing the limits of current tax laws that govern electioneering by churches and their pastors.
“Churches are absolutely forbidden to engage in electioneering,” said Robert Tuttle, professor of law and religion at George Washington University Law School and an expert on church-state law. “The congregation could face potential IRS sanction up to the point of revocation.”
The Rev. Paul Van Noy of Candlelight Christian Fellowship said he doubts such an end.
“The IRS is not going to go there – they have made it quite clear that they are staying out of the church-prosecuting business, because the church is a powerful entity, and it should be,” he said.
Labrador held a “Christian Values Discussion,” framed as a town hall-style meeting, at Candlelight Christian Fellowship in Coeur d’Alene on Oct. 17. About 200 people attended, and Labrador streamed the event live on his campaign Facebook page and has continued to tout it in his campaign.
During the discussion, which covered topics ranging from abortion and same-sex marriage to President Donald Trump, Labrador declared, “I welcome all people that want to come to Idaho that want to keep it conservative.”
Van Noy said he attended the discussion and was impressed. “It was there at that meeting that I publicly chose to make my endorsement known,” he said.
On Nov. 9, Labrador’s campaign sent out a news release touting Van Noy’s endorsement.
Van Noy was quoted as saying, “As Christians, we have an ethical responsibility to engage in stewardship of our state by voting. Our faith requires a stewardship of support for leaders who share our Christian values, ones who live by a strong and true moral compass. The stewardship of our God-given freedoms depends on this, and I know that Raul Labrador will defend religious freedom and fight those who would subvert the Judeo-Christian values upon which our nation was founded.”
Van Noy said his endorsement was personal, not made on behalf of the church. “There is no official endorsement of any candidate or any position made by the church, never has, never will be,” he said. “That’s one of the things that a church agrees to, is that a church will not spend the majority of its energy, time, resources, in engagement for political activity, and so we just don’t do that.”
He added, “Even then, you have to define majority – in other words, Candlelight, or any church, would have to spend 51 percent of their time and resources on political activity to be accused of spending the majority … that’s the IRS standard, and most people do not know that.”
But the IRS’ “Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations,” also known as Publication 1828, sets a very different standard: zero. Churches, it says, “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for elective public office.”
“This pastor is wrong,” Tuttle said. “I have no idea what he’s talking about.”
Churches, as nonprofits, get special tax treatment, Tuttle explained, with people being able to write off their contributions to the churches against their taxes. The IRS prohibitions on electioneering by churches are aimed at preventing all American taxpayers from subsidizing someone’s partisan political campaign through tax deductions.
“If I make a contribution to a normal political campaign, that contribution is not tax-deductible,” he said.
The prohibition has stood for decades, Tuttle said, but was mainly found in tax court opinions prior to the enactment of the Johnson Amendment in 1954. That law, proposed by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, prohibited all tax-exempt nonprofits from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
House Republicans inserted a clause into their version of the tax reform bill – which is expected to be voted on Thursday – specifically lifting the Johnson Amendment’s restriction to allow church pastors to endorse candidates during worship services, as long as they don’t spend church funds on campaigns.
During markup of the tax bill, that clause was expanded to allow all nonprofits, including churches, charities and foundations, to endorse candidates.
The revised version matches H.R. 781, the “Free Speech Fairness Act,” which was introduced in the House in February; Labrador is a co-sponsor.
Opponents contend the change will cost the U.S. Treasury as much as $2 billion, as political donors shift their giving to nonprofits. The clause isn’t found in the Senate version of the tax bill.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian advocacy group that’s been leading a push to “fix the Johnson Amendment,” contends that preventing pastors from endorsing candidates from the pulpit constitutes government censorship and restricts their rights to free speech.
Van Noy said Labrador’s campaign contacted him about using the 1,000-member church’s building – a former movie theater – for its event.
“We do this all the time,” Van Noy said. “We have town halls, and we have summits, and we have all kinds of activities around Candlelight. Because our building is decent-sized, it’s an easy location, a lot of different groups ask us if they can use the building.”
Scott Phillips, spokesman for Labrador’s campaign, said, “The campaign organized the event, and in fact we leased the facility. And from what I understand … it’s available for anybody.”
Van Noy said the campaign was charged the regular nonmember rental fee for the facility, $550 plus janitorial charges.
Phillips said, “Paul endorsed Raul in his capacity as an individual. … This is Paul as an individual person.”
Pastors may endorse candidates as individuals, the IRS guidelines say, but they can’t maintain tax-exempt organizations if they do so in official church publications or at official church functions. “To avoid potential attribution of their comments outside of church functions and publications, religious leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to clearly indicate that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization.”
There was no such disclaimer in the endorsement news release that the Labrador campaign sent out.
Asked about that, Van Noy said, “It’s unnecessary. I am speaking as an individual. That’s the only thing necessary. … I’m happy to endorse Raul. I will endorse other candidates for various offices.”
Tuttle said the IRS is unlikely to go after a church just for the lack of a disclaimer in a personal endorsement from a pastor. “A lot of it depends on the extent to which people are going to confuse the support of the church with support from the pastor in his personal capacity,” he said.
But, he said, “The IRS does go after churches. … They can impose an excise tax if they can determine the value of the benefit conferred to the candidate.” Often, he said, “Churches get warning letters, basically saying, ‘Don’t do it again, if you do we’ll come back after you.’ ”
No other candidates were included in the meeting at the church; Labrador faces Lt. Gov. Brad Little, Boise businessman and developer Tommy Ahlquist and several other candidates in the race to be Idaho’s next governor.
Van Noy, who started Candlelight in his living room 20 years ago and built it into a bustling nondenominational Christian church, said, “We should be standing with everyone that’s standing for life and for good. And a guy like Raul Labrador is standing for life and for good, and we should get behind him, and I think every pastor should.”