Chris Moran

These 20 churches are violating federal law by supporting political candidates: expert assessments

The endorsement of political candidates by religious leaders from the pulpit has grown increasingly brazen, aggressive and sophisticated in recent years.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune have found 20 apparent violations in the past two years of the Johnson Amendment, a law that prohibits church leaders from intervening in political campaigns. Two occurred in the last two weeks as candidates crisscross Texas vying for votes. The number of potential violations found by the news outlets is greater than the total number of churches the IRS has investigated for intervening in political campaigns in the past decade, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Under the law, pastors can endorse candidates in their personal capacities outside of church and weigh in on political issues from the pulpit as long as they don’t veer into support or condemnation of a particular candidate. But the law prohibits pastors from endorsing candidates during official church functions such as sermons.

Violations can lead to the revocation of a church’s tax-exempt status.

Descriptions of the 20 videos we identified are below. ProPublica and the Tribune had three experts review each of them. They agreed that the cases below violate the law. The experts were Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a tax and election law expert at the University of Notre Dame; Ellen Aprill, an emerita tax law professor at Loyola Marymount University’s law school; and Sam Brunson, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago.

We’re Not Endorsing a Candidate, but…

In these cases, pastors said they were not endorsing candidates, but their actions equated to an endorsement, according to the experts. Some acknowledged that the law did not allow them to endorse before making their statements.

Mercy Culture

Location: Fort Worth, Texas

Pastors: Landon Schott, Heather Schott and Steve Penate

Context: Pastors at Mercy Culture expressed support for political candidates in at least three sermons this year. All three instances violated the Johnson Amendment, according to the experts. During one such instance on Feb. 6, the Schotts and Penate spoke in favor of Nate Schatzline, who is running for a seat in the state House. “Now, obviously, churches don’t endorse candidates, but my name is Landon and I’m a person before I’m a pastor. And as an individual, I endorse Nate Schatzline,” Landon Schott said. Schatzline’s appearance ended with Schott stating: “We declare Mercy Culture Church is behind you. We declare Mercy Culture Church is praying for you. We declare Mercy Culture Church is supporting you.” Early voting for the March 1 primary began eight days after the church service. Schatzline qualified for a runoff, which he won on May 24. He will face Democratic nominee KC Chowdhury, a Democrat, in Tuesday’s general election.

Expert assessment:

Brunson: “If it’s part of the religious services, his disclaimer doesn’t work and it’s a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment (albeit an almost clever, and definitely self-aware, attempt to avoid that). Penate saying ‘do something with us’ is absolutely an endorsement. If they’re doing it in their capacity as pastors, this violates the Johnson Amendment.”

Church and candidate response: Mercy Culture, Landon Schott and Heather Schott did not respond to questions or requests for comment. Both Penate, a church elder who said he was not speaking on behalf of the church, and Schatzline stated in separate interviews that they did not believe any laws were broken. “Mercy Culture has never endorsed anyone,” Penate said. “Mercy Culture has never told anyone to vote a certain way. Never.”

Unite Church

Location: Anchorage, Alaska

Pastor: Josh Tanner

Context: On Jan. 16, Tanner introduced his congregation to Kelly Tshibaka, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, and let her speak about how she expressed her faith during her career in government. “OK, so I want you to know that we’re not just gonna be doing an endorsement for Kelly today, even though I am endorsing Kelly for U.S. Senate. And you can vote for whoever you want. I’m just letting you know who I’m voting for. It’s gonna be her.”

Tshibaka was among the top candidates to advance to the November general election. She will face incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Patricia Chesbro on Tuesday.

Expert assessment:

Aprill: “That the pastor says he personally endorses the candidate at an official function of the church makes the statement campaign intervention.”

Church and candidate response: Unite Church, Tanner and Tshibaka did not respond to requests for comment.

“Uncle Bill”: A New “Family”-Based Strategy

Some churches coordinated with one another to provide their congregations with a list that singled out specific candidates and omitted others.

Gateway Church

Location: Southlake, Texas, northwest of Dallas

Pastor: Robert Morris

Context: Morris is among a group of Dallas-area pastors who have coordinated to highlight certain candidates running for public office. Since 2021, Morris has shown his congregation the names of specific candidates for office at least three times. In each of those cases, Morris violated the Johnson Amendment, according to experts. (Morris also showed the names during an Oct. 23 service.) During an April 18, 2021, sermon, a day before the start of early voting, Morris displayed the names of nine candidates running in nonpartisan races for school board and City Council on a screen. “And so we’re not endorsing a candidate,” Morris said. “We’re not doing that. But we just thought because they’re a member of the family of God, that you might want to know if someone in the family and this family of churches is running.” All but one of the candidates whose names were shown either won their race or qualified for a runoff.

Expert assessment:

Mayer: “This is a new (at least to me) technique, to join a group of like-minded churches and then identify to the congregation anyone who is a member of any of those churches who is a candidate for elected public office, as opposed to just identifying members of your congregation who are candidates. But this technique, even with the disclaimers made by the pastor here, is still a violation of the Johnson Amendment. While the pastor tries to avoid the violation by making various disclaimers and saying he is just giving the congregation the names and they can do what they want when they vote, those are not sufficient to cure the violation. But they do provide an argument that there is not a violation and so muddies the waters a bit, even though I believe that argument ultimately fails legally.”

Church response: Lawrence Swicegood, Gateway Media executive director, said in an emailed statement:

“At Gateway Church:

We DON’T:

  • Support any specific political party
  • Endorse political candidates

We DO:

  • INFORM our church family of other church family members who are seeking office to serve our community.
  • ENCOURAGE our church family to vote as God leads them.
  • PRAY for our elected officials regardless of their political party, or affiliation.”

First Baptist Grapevine

Location: Grapevine, Texas, northwest of Dallas

Pastor: Doug Page

Context: On April 18, 2021, Page showed his congregation the same list of candidates as Morris. “This is not an endorsement by us. We are not endorsing anyone. However, if you’re part of a family, you’d like to know if Uncle Bill is running for office, right? And so that’s all we’re going to do is simply inform you,” Page said.

Expert assessment:

Mayer: “This is a violation of the Johnson Amendment for the same reasons as the Gateway Church violations.”

Church response: “As is clearly stated in the sermon clip you provided, these candidates were named for information only, not for endorsement. First Baptist Grapevine does not and will not endorse candidates for public office. Our primary focus is the gospel of Jesus Christ and seeking to follow His will for our lives,” Page said in an emailed statement.

Dueling Endorsements

For these nonpartisan races in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, pastors from different churches endorsed opposing candidates.

Koinonia Christian Church

Location: Arlington, Texas

Pastor: Ronnie W. Goines

Context: The first race involved candidates for the Mansfield school board. In a May 1 sermon, Goines implored his congregation to vote for Benita Reed in a local nonpartisan race on May 7. He said that Reed was the most qualified candidate in the race because she has worked in education for almost 30 years, but that scare tactics were being used against her. He then showed a mailer targeting Reed that read, “MISD put ‘woke’ politics over the safety of our children.” Then, Goines said, “All we got to do, people, is let’s go make a long line outside the polls and get this woman elected.” He later said: “Koinonia, we need, Dr. Reed needs a thousand votes. She needs a thousand votes. We got right at 10,000 members.”

Expert assessment:

Aprill: “This is a direct campaign intervention. He says, ‘She needs a thousand votes.’”

Church and candidate response: Reached by phone, Goines directed the news organizations to the church’s spokesperson, who did not respond. Reed did not respond to emailed questions.

MoreChurch

Location: Mansfield, Texas, southwest of Dallas

Pastor: Truston Baba

Context: None of the candidates received more than 50% of the vote during the May 7 election, leading to a runoff between Reed and Craig Tipping. During a June 12 sermon, Baba encouraged his congregation to vote in the runoff election. He then praised Tipping. “And so, Craig, thank you for running. Thank you for being obedient to do what God’s called you to do. And I’m gonna support you. And I hope that people from More Church will not just complain but will actually get out and vote. You know, we go to the booth, and we go to get these little stickers. ‘I voted.’ Y’all know you get the ‘I voted’ sticker? Come on. There’s a big one. Get out. Get the sticker. Let’s vote and help make a difference locally. Come on. Give a hand for my friend Craig today.” Tipping, a physical therapist, won on June 18.

Expert Assessment:

Aprill: “Having only one candidate appear is partisan. This pastor states at an official event that he supports the candidate. As noted earlier, that violates the prohibition. Moreover, the pastor’s comments are an endorsement of the candidate generally.”

Church and candidate response: Neither More Church nor Baba responded to requests for an interview or emailed questions. Tipping did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Life-Changing Faith Christian Fellowship

Location: Frisco, Texas, north of Dallas

Pastor: Dono Pelham

Context: The second set of dueling sermons involved two candidates in a nonpartisan race for Frisco City Council. On May 2, 2021, Pelham told his congregation that his wife, Angelia Pelham, had qualified for the runoff. He encouraged them to vote in the June 5, 2021, election in which Pelham faced Jennifer White, a veterinarian who described herself as the only conservative in the race. “I’m not about to endorse, but you’ll get the message,” Pelham said.

Expert Assessment:

Brunson: “He’s basically endorsing his wife, and I think it would be hard to argue anything different.”

Church and candidate response: Dono Pelham said in an emailed statement that he did not endorse his wife in the runoff. Angelia Pelham said she and her husband were “very clear and very intentional” about not violating the Johnson Amendment.

KingdomLife Church

Location: Frisco, Texas

Pastor: Brandon Burden

Context: Six days before that runoff election for the Frisco City Council, Burden supported White from the pulpit. Burden told churchgoers that God was working through the congregation to take the country, and particularly North Texas, back to its Christian roots. He framed the race between White and Pelham as one against Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney. Cheney had urged residents to put party politics aside and vote for Pelham because of her experience working for corporations such as PepsiCo Inc., The Walt Disney Co. and Cinemark. “I got a candidate that God wants to win,” Burden said. “I got a mayor that God wants to unseat. God wants to undo. God wants to shift the balance of power in our city. And I have jurisdiction over that this morning.” Pelham defeated White in the election.

Expert assessment:

Brunson: “It’s pretty obvious, from the context and other things that he has said, that it is clear who he is saying God wants to win.”

Church and candidate response: Neither Burden nor KingdomLife responded to multiple interview requests or to emailed questions. White said she wasn’t in attendance during the sermon. She said she does not believe pastors should endorse candidates from the pulpit, but she welcomed churches becoming more politically active. “I think that the churches over the years have been a big pretty big disappointment to the candidates in that they won’t take a political stance,” White said. “So I would love it if churches would go ahead and come out and actually discuss things like morality. Not a specific party, but at least make sure people know where the candidates stand on those issues. And how to vote based on that.”

“Vote Her Behind Right Out of Office”: Criticizing the Incumbent, Praising the Challenger

Pulpit criticism of sitting officeholders is permitted, except during campaigns when officeholders are running as candidates. In the cases below, pastors criticized the incumbents while praising their challengers during election season.

Legacy Church

Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pastor: Steve Smothermon

Context: During a July 10 sermon, Smothermon attacked New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who supports abortion rights, and praised Republican Mark Ronchetti for seeking to end abortion in New Mexico. “We have the Wicked Witch of the North. Or you have Mark Ronchetti,” Smotherman said. Later in the sermon, Smotherman said, “You better get registered to vote, and we better vote her behind right out of office.” Grisham and Ronchetti will face each other in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election.

Expert assessment:

Aprill: “This is a campaign intervention. The pastor is endorsing Ronchetti and opposing Ronchetti’s opponent.”

Church and candidate response: Legacy Church, Smothermon and Ronchetti did not respond to requests for comment.

Friendship-West Baptist Church

Location: Dallas

Pastor: Frederick Douglass Haynes III

Context: At the end of the church service on May 8, Haynes criticized state leaders’ response to the deadly February 2021 winter storm and praised Beto O’Rourke for donating $25,000 to the church during that time. Haynes then invited O’Rourke to speak with his congregation. “I just want to say, because I think we need to know this in a very public way, that when there was a crisis February last year and the ineptitude of our state leadership, and then you had (Ted) Cruz going to Cancun. Lord Jesus, so Cruz went to Cancun and then (Greg) Abbott’s friends got paid. And while that was going on, Beto O’Rourke was using resources from his foundation. He was on the ground, serving people, blessing people and just, just, just doing what God wants us to do.” O’Rourke, who announced in November 2021 that he would challenge Greg Abbott in the race for governor, then gave a 10-minute speech about how the faith community played a pivotal role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act. O’Rourke was identified as a gubernatorial candidate in a caption on the church’s livestream. He ended his May speech by expressing hope that people of color who were targeted by the restrictive voting laws passed by Republicans last year would provide the margin of victory on Nov. 8.

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “Assuming the church is responsible for the caption (that ran under O’Rourke on the church’s livestream), this is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment because the church explicitly identifies Beto O’Rourke as a candidate and the pastor expresses support for him.”

Church and candidate response: Haynes did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment. Chris Evans, communication director for O’Rourke’s campaign, said in an emailed statement: “Beto has enjoyed worshiping alongside the congregation at Friendship-West Baptist Church for years and is proud to call Pastor Haynes his friend. Pastor Haynes has long led the on-the-ground work of bringing people together to deliver for his community that Greg Abbott has absolutely failed and to fight for equality, justice, and opportunity across Texas.”

“My Dear Friend”: Hosting a Candidate

Some pastors introduced candidates during their sermons and allowed them to speak, while others interviewed them during church functions. The Johnson Amendment allows candidates to visit churches and speak to parishioners before elections, but it requires that churches maintain a “nonpartisan atmosphere” and give all candidates the same opportunity to visit.

St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church

Location: Dallas

Pastor: Richie Butler

Context: On Oct. 23, a day before early voting began, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke visited the church. Butler introduced him as “the next governor of Texas.” He told parishioners: “We want to encourage him as he continues to run the race that is before him, and he needs us to get him across the finish line.” O’Rourke urged parishioners to vote and then gave a brief speech calling for fixing the state’s electric grid and expressing alarm over the high rate of school shootings and gun violence.

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “This situation is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment. Beto O’Rourke is introduced as the ‘next governor of Texas,’ which highlights both that he is a candidate and one whom the church supports. And O’Rourke’s comments are a sales pitch for his candidacy. There is no indication that any opposing candidate has been given a similar opportunity and, even if he had been, the favorable introduction of O’Rourke would still be across the line.”

Church and candidate response: In a statement, Butler said: “Black churches have been important hubs for civic engagement and organization in the fight for social justice since Reconstruction. The mixing of faith-based congregations and electoral engagement is not a new concept.” O’Rourke did not respond to a request for comment or emailed questions.

Grace Woodlands

Location: The Woodlands, Texas, north of Houston

Pastor: Steve Riggle

Context: Also on Oct. 23, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican running for reelection, visited Grace Woodlands. During the sermon, Riggle said that Texas needs leaders like Patrick who “will stand for values that are critical to the future of this nation.” Riggle praised Patrick as a “strong person” of faith whom “God has given us at the very top.” Patrick then spoke to the congregation and cast the election in stark terms. “This is not a race between Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “This is a race about darkness and light. This is a race about powers and principalities. And the devil is at full work in this country.”

Expert Assessment:

Brunson: “This is a clear endorsement of Patrick by the pastor of a church acting in his capacity as pastor in the course of ordinary church meetings. This violates the Johnson Amendment.”

Church and candidate response: Riggle said that his church did not endorse any candidate and said his introduction was focused on biblical values, not politics. He added that he believes the Johnson Amendment should be overturned.

“The government has no right at any time to, in any way, tell the church who it can have or who it cannot have to speak,” he said. “It can’t tell the church what it can preach on or not preach on. This is America, and we believe in a free church, not one controlled by the government.”

Patrick did not respond to requests for comment or emailed questions.

Sojourn Church

Location: Carrollton, Texas, north of Dallas

Pastor: Chris McRae

Context: During a May 1 sermon, McRae told parishioners that they were being lied to by an “invisible enemy” about issues of race, gender and abortion. He said they needed to “wake up” and confront the lies. McRae then invited Kevin Falconer, the mayor of Carrollton and a Republican candidate for Denton County Commissioner, to the pulpit to speak. “I can’t, as my friends will say, I can’t endorse him. But I do know that God loves Falcons,” McRae said. He also told his congregation he thought Steve Babick would win the upcoming nonpartisan mayoral election to fill the vacancy left by Falconer. Both Falconer and Babick won their elections.

Expert assessment:

Aprill: “That is campaign intervention to me, even though the pastor states that he is asking Kevin to speak about communion. Context makes it an indirect campaign intervention.”

Church and candidate response: Sojourn Church, McRae and Falconer did not respond to requests for comment. Babick said he was unaware of any statements McRae made about him or his candidacy. “I’m not necessarily in favor or against it,” Babick said of the Johnson Amendment.

Woodlands Church

Location: The Woodlands, Texas, north of Houston

Pastor: Kerry Shook

Context: On Jan. 16, Shook introduced Christian Collins to his congregation. Collins was campaigning for the Republican nomination for Texas’ 8th Congressional District, which includes parts of Houston and several surrounding cities. “And so, the primaries are coming up in March, and I just wanted y’all to get to know Christian, my dear friend, and his love for Jesus Christ and pray for all of those Christ followers who are doing something that I would never do,” Shook said. The sermon occurred two and a half months before the Republican primary election. Collins lost the race.

Expert Assessment:

Aprill: “Specifically naming the primary and the candidate and saying we need Christ followers makes it campaign intervention to me.”

Church and candidate response: Woodlands Church, Kerry Shook Ministries and Kerry Shook did not respond to requests for comment. Through a spokesperson, Collins declined to comment.

Abundant Life Church

Location: Willis, Texas, north of Houston

Pastor: Dave Stovall

Context: At the end of his sermon on Dec. 5, 2021, Stovall introduced Collins as a candidate for the 8th Congressional District. He praised Collins for founding the Texas Youth Summit, a two-day conference that promotes conservative political activism among students. “Would you stand in honor of Christian Collins and the leader, servant-leader that he is and what he has done for this community?” Stovall asked. Collins had pledged to join the congressional Freedom Caucus, a voting bloc made up of some of the most conservative members of Congress, in contrast to his chief opponent, former Navy SEAL Morgan Luttrell, who won the Republican primary.

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “This is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment for the same reasons as the previous passage from Woodlands Church. (The similarity of this passage and the one from Woodlands Church makes me wonder if the pastors had been given suggested scripts from the same source.)”

Church and candidate response: Abundant Life Church and Stovall did not respond to requests for comment, including the news organizations’ question about whether it had invited Luttrell or any other candidate to speak at the church. Through a spokesperson, Collins declined to comment.

Destiny Christian Church

Location: Rocklin, California, northwest of Sacramento

Pastor: Greg Fairrington

Context: In a conversation with California gubernatorial candidate Anthony Trimino, a Republican, during a May 15 church service, Fairrington told his congregation that the state needs a leader with a “vibrant faith in Jesus Christ.” He praised Trimino for his effort to unseat Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, and prayed for the Republican candidate. “Lord God, that you would inspire voters here in the state of California to cast their vote for the sanctity of life. Lord God, that they would get behind a conservative Christian candidate,” Fairrington said. Trimino came in sixth in an open party primary election on June 7. He did not advance to the November general election.

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “This passage is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment because it implicitly identifies Anthony as a candidate, specifically mentions voting and calls on the audience to get behind a conservative, pro-life Christian candidate (implicitly, such as Anthony).”

Church and Candidate Response: Destiny Christian Church, Fairrington and Trimino did not respond to requests for comment.

Carver Park Baptist Church

Location: Waco, Texas

Pastor: Gaylon P. Foreman

Context: On April 7, Foreman livestreamed a Q&A at the church with Marlon Jones, a candidate for the Waco Independent School District school board. “Again, I endorse him fully and completely, and I wish that you would prayerfully consider helping support this mighty man of God, so he can help make kingdom impact on the Waco ISD,” Foreman said. Experts said Johnson Amendment violations can occur at any church function, not just during sermons. Jones lost the May 7 election.

Expert Assessment:

Brunson: “This pastor doesn’t even pretend not to be endorsing the candidate, which is the honest approach. He’s clearly endorsing.”

Church and candidate response: Foreman defended his discussion with Jones. “I told him about the show and he agreed to appear. I didn’t hear from or have any other contact with any other candidates or I would have gladly allowed them to appear as well,” Foreman said. “On the show, I did acknowledge that I personally supported him and that I felt that he was the best candidate. I also asked about how our community could help him. For as long as I’ve been serving as pastor, I’ve always made it clear that I never tell others who to vote for but do encourage everyone to vote.”

Jones said in an interview with the news organizations that he thought Foreman provided information and did not violate the Johnson Amendment. “I think during the broadcast Pastor Foreman was very intentional about encouraging people to vote but not necessarily saying this is who we should vote for.” Jones, who is also a pastor, added: “Saying ‘this is something I am doing’ does not necessarily mean your congregation will do that.”

Praising Trump Before the 2020 Election

In the days leading up to the 2020 election, some pastors extolled the ways in which former President Donald Trump had delivered for Christians.

Cowboy Church of Corsicana

Location: Corsicana, Texas, southeast of Dallas

Pastor: Derek Rogers

Context: On Oct. 14, 2020, Rogers told his congregation that even though pastors aren’t supposed to talk about politics, parishioners needed to support Trump’s reelection bid. “I do not understand how anybody that calls himself a Christian could vote for the agenda and the platform of Joe Biden,” he said. “President Trump, he ain’t the greatest dude in the whole world, but he’s the closest thing that we got to what we need.”

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “This is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment because it identifies two candidates by name and explicitly tells the congregation for which of them they should vote.”

Church response: Rogers did not respond to requests for comment.

Beth Sar Shalom

Location: Carrollton, Texas, north of Dallas

Pastor: Steven Ger

Context: Ger explained to congregants why they should support Trump over Biden for president two days before the election. “I like what our president has done. He made his promises. And he kept his promises.” He later called Trump the “most pro-life president ever” and said, “Vice President Biden would be the most pro-abortion president ever.”

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “The passage is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment because it identifies two candidates, describes their positions and then says which position (and therefore candidate) should be voted for.”

Church response: Executive Pastor Don Jones initially said he was willing to be interviewed, but neither he nor Ger responded to follow-up calls and emailed questions.

Trinity Family Church

Location: Forney, Texas, east of Dallas

Pastor: Marty Reid

Context: In a sermon two days before the Nov. 3, 2020, election, Reid told his congregation that even though Trump “doesn’t know much” about Christianity, “I believe God has raised up President Trump for such a time as this".

Expert Assessment:

Aprill: “Clearly an endorsement of Trump and campaign intervention.”

Church response: Trinity Family Church and Reid did not respond to requests for comment.

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