FORT WORTH, Texas — Speaking to a packed house at Mercy Culture Church in East Fort Worth, Rev. Landon Schott brought two members of his church on stage — mayoral candidate Steve Penate and District 9 City Council candidate Erik Richerson, who, at the time, had just been disqualified from the election.
The address to Penate’s website was emblazoned on a large screen behind Schott, as the young pastor spoke about what he considered Richerson's mistreatment by the City of Fort Worth.
“They say, 'They believe in justice',” the pastor said. “But they want to take a mistake of a 17-year-old boy, and because he’s a Black man conservative, he doesn’t get the same justice? This has nothing to do with politics. He was disqualified because he said, ‘I stand on biblical values.’”
Richerson was later reinstated by the City Secretary, though he told Spectrum News 1 that his campaign suffered for the uncertainty. Neither Penate nor Richerson garnered even 10% of the vote, but both found themselves at the center of media attention, as did several prominent church leaders who some critics accused of campaigning at the pulpit.
Similar to Schott at Mercy Culture, senior pastor Doug Page’s First Baptist Grapevine was among a group of North Texas megachurches where leaders mentioned by name members who are running for Tarrant County offices while encouraging others to vote.
Gateway Church senior pastor Robert Morris was also among those who spoke the names of people who were running for Southlake, Colleyville and Grapevine council and school board races, as their races appeared on a large screen.
Morris was among Fort Worth evangelicals, including Gloria and Kenneth Copeland, and Colleyville evangelist James Robison, who advised former President Donald Trump ahead of his 2016 election.
Another church was forced to distance itself from the Southlake race after a woman called members — identifying herself as a congregant — and encouraged them to vote for two school board candidates, saying they must be elected because they stand against “critical race theory” and in support of “freedom of speech and religion.”
Schott said his endorsement of Penate and Richerson was personal and he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the church — doing so would jeopardize Mercy Culture’s non-profit status.
In order to keep their tax-exempt status, churches and religious organizations must abide by certain rules according to the IRS. Under IRS code, “all IRS section 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches and religious 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. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.” By breaking this rule, the IRS may deny or revoke the tax-exempt status of the church and the impose of certain excise tax.
The IRS rules also address “Individual Activity by Religious Leaders.” An IRS publication says that it's prohibiting of political campaign activity within these tax-exempt organizations is not intended to restrict free speech on political matters for individuals. Religious leaders can speak their mind and endorse candidates as long as they aren’t doing it as an official representative of the church (i.e. church publications or at official church functions). When speaking/writing their opinions on political issues outside of the church, religious leaders are urged to indicate that these are their personal viewpoints and not the views of the religious organization they represent.
A spokesperson from the IRS told Spectrum News 1 that she isn’t aware of any pending investigations resulting from the so-called politics from the pulpit, and that legal vagaries in the language of the rules would make such an investigation difficult.
Schott said he announced that two members of his church were running for office the same way he would highlight another member’s humanitarian work in the community or business project.
“There's a lot of awesome Christian conservatives that are running for office all over DFW,” he said. “I don't look at it as a Republican party thing. I think it's more value-based.
“I don't even look at like this as political,” he added. "That's not my intention. We want to help as many people and serve as many people as we can. That’s our M.O. — if it's about helping survivors of human trafficking or feeding people or other injustices that we're seeing in the city. We're, we're passionate about helping people. And so through politics, you're able to help people.”