Federal law allows tax-exempt 501 (c) (3) nonprofits, including churches registered this way, to conduct impartial education and registration activities for voters – but prohibits them from engaging in partisan policies such as endorsement or against certain political candidates .
According to the IRS, these groups cannot participate in “activities showing signs of bias that would favor one candidate over another; oppose a candidate in any way; or prefer a candidate or a group ”.
Brendan Fischer, director of the federal reform program at the Legal Center for Nonprofit Campaigns, said, “For the past several years, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) may have the [Covington event] as a border crossing ”, but under Donald Trump’s administration it took a“ stance without enforcement ”. He said such groups could “feel encouraged to broaden the legal framework”.
Conservative politicians and lobby groups have long spoken out against the IRS rules. From 2008 to 2016, more than 2,000 Evangelical Christian ministers “deliberately injured them” in protest, the Washington Post said. Only one of these people has been examined and none have been sanctioned.
According to a survey by LifeWay Research, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the EU, the number of Protestant pastors who personally supported a political candidate in the 2020 election rose by 10% US.
In Georgia, several Christian Conservative groups reportedly spent millions of dollars on efforts to increase voter turnout and support for Republican candidates in the Georgia Senate runoff elections.
Prominent pastors in Georgia also previously endorsed Donald Trump, including Jentezen Franklin, senior pastor of the multi-campus mega-church Free Chapel and a member of the evangelical advisory board for the 2016 Trump campaign.
“A Christian Nationalist Meeting”
The Covington, Georgia meeting ended the same way church services often do – with several prayers, including one that read, “Dear Lord, help these people as they are afraid that Joe Biden will … win.”
Other closing prayers cited the runoff elections as “spiritual warfare” and included a request to God “put your candidate in office”.
Billy Ingram, senior pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church, where the event was held, previously attended a Trump rally in October and said the 2020 vote was the “most important choice in our lives.” He then repeated unsubstantiated allegations on social media that the 2020 election had been “stolen” and tweeted an article calling on Trump to order the US military to intervene in the election.
Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in Madison, Wisconsin, also reviewed video of the Covington event posted on the Church’s social media pages, describing it as a “Christian Nationalist Gathering” “.
“They made it clear,” he added, “when they said at the beginning that this is a meeting between God and land, that they intend to mix politics and preaching.”
The FFRF has previously allegedly challenged partisan activities by churches and pastors, including in Florida and Texas, with complaints to the IRS. It is unclear if action has been taken and the IRS has not responded to openDemocracy’s questions about activities in the 2019-20 election cycle.
At the Covington event, former Republican Congressman Bob McEwen also reiterated baseless allegations of election fraud in the 2020 election.
McEwen is closely associated with powerful right-wing and religious-conservative movements. For example, he was appointed by Trump to serve on the President’s Advisory Committee in 1776 to promote “patriotic upbringing”.
He also has longstanding relationships with the secret, Christian-Conservative Fellowship Foundation, also known as “The Family,” which has been implicated in extreme anti-LGBT activism in Africa.
“Dishonest Leading Questions”
Another speaker at the Covington event was Paul Smith, founder of the conservative Christian group Citizen Impact, a Georgia-based 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization whose participation in party political activities is prohibited by law.
From the pulpit he advertised a “voter leader” and asked the audience to help spread the word. “We’re not even here to tell you who to vote,” he said, adding, “We have this voter guide that might help you with that.”
The guide provides a head-to-head comparison of the voting results of candidates for the Democratic and Republican Senates in Georgia – on just ten topics, including “Abortion on Demand”; Defunding the abortion rights group Planned Parenthood; the “border wall”; Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation as Supreme Court Justice that year; and the impeachment of Donald Trump.
The law allows 501 (c) (3) groups to create and distribute voter guides and other voter education materials, but these must be “impartial,” said Fischer at the Campaign Legal Center.
“Similarly, charities and churches can discuss political issues in public forums, but may not cross the line into electoral representation.”
The Family Policy Alliance of Georgia has published a “Guide to Voting on Biblical Issues” comparing US Senate candidates Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler. | Photo credit: FPAG.
openDemocracy shared several voter guides produced by Christian Conservative groups for the Georgia Senate runoff election with tax experts.
Aprill, of Loyola Marymount University Law School, said the guide from a group called the Family Policy Alliance of Georgia was “more worrying” than others. She noted the lack of citations for the positions of Republican candidates and said “his language is less neutral than that of the other leaders”.
Roger Colinvaux, Professor of Law in the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America, added: “Some of the electoral leaders have had a clear partisan bias in the formulation and presentation of issues to come very close to endorsement or political announcements. and could have crossed the line. ”
Seidel, the Freedom from Religion Foundation attorney, said guides used on a nationwide bus tour by a group called Faith Wins also appear to use “bend or break the rules” and use “dishonest leading questions”.
Fischer at the Campaign Legal Center blamed part of the blame on the IRS. He said: “He has given limited guidance on how to analyze whether a charity’s electoral guide does not favor a candidate or political party or whether a speech crosses the line in banned electoral proxy. “
A nationwide bus tour
Citizen Impact worked with other Christian rights groups, including Faith Wins, to run a nationwide bus tour to highlight the importance of the runoff elections in Georgia. All but one of the tour’s twelve events were in churches, including the Canaan Baptist Church in Covington.
At one of these events at Morningside Baptist Church in Valdosta, Georgia, Citizen Impact’s Smith stated that the group has at least “65 churches as financial partners” in the state. At every event he promoted their electoral leaders.
Also at the Morningside church event was David Barton, a Christian nationalist who leads a Texas-based group called Wallbuilders, which promotes an alternate version of the story the United States started as the Christrian nation.
“If we lose control of the Senate and the president doesn’t win his lawsuits,” he warned, “we’re going to see a fundamental change like you’ve never seen before.”
At each of these events, a speaker asked viewers to send a text message to a number. In response to this message, individuals were asked to sign the FaithWins Pledge. They promised to elect and mobilize “fellow Christians” to do the same and provided their contact information.
It’s unclear if this was part of a voter record, and Faith Wins declined to respond to openDemocracy’s requests for comment.
Barton is also on the board of United in Purpose (UiP), a Christian data collection group for right wing voters, along with former Republican Congressman McEwen, who spoke at the Covington event. Its founder, Bill Dallas, claimed he collected information on more than 200 million people. UiP partnered with other Christian rights groups during the 2020 campaign to support Trump.
The Canaan Baptist Church, Citizen Impact, and Family Policy Alliance of Georgia also declined to respond to openDemocracy’s requests for comment.