While a Mullan Road Church appears to be in conflict with IRS rules covering political campaigning by nonprofit groups, chances are it won’t be prosecuted.
The Crosspoint Church has installed political signs on its lawn showing support for two federal and two state candidates running for office. Under the IRS code, all 501(c)(3) organizations 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.”
The IRS code adds that violating this prohibition may result in revocation of a tax-exempt status.
Bruce Speer, the church’s senior pastor, didn’t return two phone calls from the Missoulian seeking comments about the signs on Monday. But he told Fox News that the church’s support for the four candidates has to do with their pro-life stance, not about being a Democrat or Republican. The signs support U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Senate candidate Matt Rosendale, with two smaller signs supporting the re-election of Greg Hertz and Brad Tschida to Montana’s House. All of the candidates are Republicans.
Anthony Johnstone, a law professor at the University of Montana, said while the law is clear on its face, if the amount being spent is small, the IRS often chooses not to enforce its regulations.
Montana faced a similar situation in 2004, when the Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church in East Helena was involved in political activities in support of a ballot measure that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Those activities included providing petitions in the church that congregants could sign opposing the measure.
In 2006, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula ruled against the church, writing that “nothing in the First Amendment keeps the state from exercising its regulatory authority over the political process, even when the politicking takes place in the 'sanctuary.'"
But the church took its case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled the state violated the church’s First Amendment rights when then-Commissioner of Political Practices Gordon Higgins ruled the church became an “incidental campaign committee,” and needed to report its expenditures to the state.
“In both situations, you have a question of minimal expenditures,” Johnstone said. “In the Canyon Ferry case and others, there’s generally been a pattern of enforcement or under-enforcement of IRS tax laws. In the Canyon Ferry case, the question was if a church campaigned on the marriage amendment at their own building during events they’re already holding, was that a significant investment in the campaign?”
Johnstone noted that at Crosspoint, the signs are given out for free, and they’re included in campaign finance reports from candidates.
Across denominations, there’s been an uptick in political activities by churches, mainly in trying to get their people to vote, and vote in certain ways, Johnstone said.
“But there’s been a long tradition of churches involved in campaign finance law in which they’re not concerned about an organization's communication to its members,” Johnstone said. “That’s like teachers’ unions, who can send endorsements to its members.”
Efforts have been made in recent years to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which since 1954 has prohibited all tax-exempt nonprofits from engaging in partisan political activities and endorsing candidates.
“There have been ongoing attempts to test this line in various ways, including endorsements from the church,” Johnstone said. “It isn’t clear whether we’ll see more of that.”
He added that in the 1992 elections, a church known as Branch Ministries had its tax-exempt status revoked after buying ads urging Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton.
“So you could say that cost is the line between low-level activities and violating the law,” Johnstone said. “Yard signs probably fall on the side of the law with low interest from the government in enforcing tax law.”