Update, May 7, 2023: Scott Beard lost his Abilene City Council race, as did the two other conservative Christian candidates who vowed to protect children by removing what they deemed to be obscene books from the public library and banning family-friendly drag shows from the city.

Three churches in West Texas have made financial contributions to a pastor running for a hotly contested seat on the Abilene City Council, a clear violation of federal rules prohibiting nonprofits and churches from endorsing candidates, financial disclosure records show.

Fountaingate Merkel Church, Remnant Church and Hope Chapel Foursquare Church donated a combined $800 to the campaign of Scott Beard, senior pastor at Fountaingate Fellowship church, who is running for a seat on the seven-member City Council in Saturday’s election.

The donations represent a new level of brazenness as some churches across Texas and the United States become more active in political campaigns, a prominent expert said. Rules posted on the IRS’ website say campaign contributions from churches and other nonprofits “clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.”

“This is absolutely something every church should know — and probably does know — that they’re not allowed to do,” said Sam Brunson, a law professor specializing in religion and tax exemption at Loyola University Chicago.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune reported last year that church leaders in Texas and across the country endorsed candidates from the pulpit at least 20 times in apparent violation of the Johnson Amendment, a law passed by Congress in 1954. Three experts on nonprofit law, including Brunson, reviewed the sermons and said they crossed a line.

The IRS can strip violators of their tax-exempt status, but there’s only one publicly known example of it doing so, nearly 30 years ago. Brunson said this lack of enforcement has emboldened bad actors, and he called on Congress to explicitly tell the IRS it can also fine violators.

Beard told ProPublica and the Tribune in a phone interview on Thursday that the churches did not know they weren’t allowed to donate to him and that he has sent the checks back.

“Look, we’ve made mistakes,” he said. “Every campaign makes them. I’m just kind of under the microscope because of me being a pastor, honestly.”

Dewey Hall, the pastor of Fountaingate Merkel Church, which is nearly 18 miles west of Abilene and not affiliated with Beard’s church, said Beard told him on Wednesday that his church’s $200 donation was illegal, but he thought Beard would “be a good councilman, and we need to have Christians in politics nowadays.”

A representative of Remnant Church, which Beard reported gave him $400, responded to a question via Facebook Messenger to say that its donation was intended for Fountaingate Fellowship Church, not Beard’s campaign.

“They must have a mistake,” wrote the representative, who did not identify themselves when asked. “We will look into it.”

Beard told ProPublica and the Tribune on Friday that he thought Remnant Church’s check was written to his campaign, but that he would review his records and talk to the pastor of Remnant Church.

Hope Chapel Foursquare Church, which gave $200, did not respond to a voicemail and email seeking comment.

The IRS declined to confirm whether it had received any complaints or was investigating.

Though the donations made by the churches are small, local races are typically lower-dollar affairs than legislative elections or statewide offices. The donations may also violate Texas election law, which prohibits both nonprofit and for-profit corporations from making political contributions to candidates or political committees. Violations are considered third-degree felonies.

The Texas Ethics Commission is charged with investigating such violations and can assess a civil penalty of up to $5,000 or triple the amount at issue, whichever is greater, said J.R. Johnson, the commission’s executive director. Agency commissioners also have the authority to refer violations to local district attorneys for criminal prosecution, he said.

In February, the commission issued a $12,400 civil penalty against a for-profit corporation that it found had made two prohibited donations worth a combined $3,700 to the campaign of a county clerk candidate in South Texas. The company didn’t respond to the commission, which issued a default judgment. A message left for the company was not returned; the president’s voicemail inbox was full.

According to the Texas secretary of state, Fountaingate Merkel Church formed as a nonprofit corporation in 2017 and Remnant did so in 2021. Hope Chapel is part of the California-based International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which is formed as a nonprofit corporation. (The IRS automatically considers churches to be tax-exempt even if they don’t apply for that status directly.)

The Abilene City Council race has been marked by allegations of Johnson Amendment violations for months. At least five churches have displayed campaign signs for three conservative Christian candidates who have all vowed to protect children by removing what they deemed to be obscene books from the public library and banning family-friendly drag shows from the city.

Campaign signs for mayoral candidate Ryan Goodwin and City Council candidates Scott Beard and James Sargent are displayed outside First Church of the Nazarene, first image; Hope 4 Life Church, second image; and New Beginnings Pentecostal Church, third image; in Abilene last week. Credit: Emil T. Lippe for ProPublica and The Texas Tribune

Two of the candidates are pastors: Beard and Ryan Goodwin, a mayoral candidate, who is both a real estate agent and an associate pastor at Mosaic Church. The third candidate, James Sargent, who is running for a City Council seat, is an Air Force veteran and an auto mechanic who has made his identity as a Christian central to his campaign. Sargent’s campaign motto is “biblically founded | constitutionally grounded.”

All three organized to outlaw abortion in Abilene before the Supreme Court ruling that said it was not a constitutional right and prior to Texas enacting a near-total ban on the procedure.

In interviews with ProPublica and the Tribune, Sargent said the churches he asked to display his campaign signs said yes because they were willing to display all candidates’ campaign signs if asked, which Brunson said was not a defense to a potential Johnson Amendment violation. Goodwin said some churches asked him for his campaign sign, and he’s not concerned they’ll face IRS enforcement.

First image: Goodwin in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church in Abilene. Second image: Sargent, an Air Force Veteran and an auto mechanic, has made his identity as a Christian central to his campaign for City Council. Credit: Emil T. Lippe for ProPublica and The Texas Tribune
A campaign sign for Sargent was placed outside Mosaic Church in Abilene. Credit: Emil T. Lippe for ProPublica and The Texas Tribune

“What I think we’re seeing is a fiction of the law,” Goodwin said. If the issue were to ever reach the U.S. Supreme Court, he said, “churches would have a voice and wouldn’t have to worry about anything like this.”

Beard said the Texas Ethics Commission has so far notified him of three complaints about his campaign this election.

One complaint stemmed from Beard telling his congregation at the end of a service to pick up his campaign signs in the church foyer.

Michael Bob Starr, the former commander of Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, filed the most recent ethics complaint about Beard’s campaign, alleging that Beard had not reported the in-kind donations his church had made to his campaign, specifically his church allowing him to use its property for his campaign activities. Starr told ProPublica and the Tribune on Thursday that he will submit another complaint to the commission about Beard accepting donations from the three churches even though Beard sent the checks back.

Starr, who ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for Congress in 2016, can’t vote in the City Council election because he doesn’t live within city limits, and he’s upfront about his friendship with Beard’s opponent, Brian Yates. During their time in the Air Force, Starr said, he and Yates traveled to countries run by those who believed they had a mandate from God and those who tried to impose their religion on others. He said that’s why he’s speaking up.

Beard told ProPublica and Tribune on Thursday that he is cooperating with the Texas Ethics Commission regarding Starr’s first complaint.

Beard stands by his belief that the nation was founded as a Christian nation and if it doesn’t turn back to God, it will fall like the Roman Empire and other great civilizations have throughout history.

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