Is This a Political Endorsement? November 26, 2010

Is This a Political Endorsement?

The National Day of Prayer Task Force in Austin is (as far as I can tell) a non-profit, tax-exempt religious group.

They have put up a series of billboards promoting their website and (of course) prayer:

As you all know from seeing the barrage of atheist billboards over the past couple years, there’s nothing wrong with putting up advertisements advocating your point of view.

But what about this NDOP billboard that was up before the elections in November…?

Donna Campbell M.D. for Congress?

Isn’t that a political endorsement?

Is that allowed?

You can see the billboard at the 1:08 mark of this video:

I called NDPAustin to find out what was up with that and spoke to the central Texas group’s Treasurer, Van Davison.

Davison said that it wasn’t an endorsement.

Campbell simply paid for the billboard and that was her logo on the bottom of it.

(A similar billboard, he says, contains the logo of a local real estate office.)

I didn’t realize this was allowed… or maybe it’s not.

Am I making a big deal out of nothing here? Or is this a violation of church/state separation?

If the latest American Atheists billboard one of the atheist billboards had been sponsored by a political candidate — unlikely, I know — can you even imagine the type of uproar that would ensue?

Some of you might know more about the legality of these sorts of things. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

(Thanks to Joe for the link!)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • No matter who pays for billboard a non-profit group can not endorse or oppose political candidates and has the clear appearance of doing that. The organization is listed on GuidStar as CENTRAL TEXAS TASK FORCE NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER INC.

  • Heidi

    I understand what they’re saying, but I think it’s crossing a line. Maybe it’s the candidate who crossed the line, not the non-profit, but either way it’s not cool.

    The non-political billboard is fine, though. I wish that was how they always promoted having a “day of prayer,” rather than trying to force the government to recognize it.

  • Michael

    I don’t know for sure, but I think the candidate’s freedom to spend their campaign funds depends mostly on where the funds came from. I’m sure if they received campaign funding from the state, this wouldn’t be legal.

  • Ian

    I think the difference is putting “Sponsored by Donna Campbell” and “Donna Campbell for Congress” on the bottom. The former seems okay while the latter reads as an endorsement.

    It strikes me as this also shows a potential loophole whereby any partisan candidate could create a shell charity, “sponsor” their ads and claim it’s not an endorsement. Seems shady.

    Of course I don’t know the intricacies of US law and much of it seems pretty ridiculous.

  • She could have simply put “Donna Campbell”, yet she included “M.D. for Congress”. To my eyes, that’s a political statement.

    I’m curious what the fine print under her name says. Perhaps, “This is not an endorsement”, or something equally sleazy?

  • CBC

    It’s not a violation of the principle of separation of church and state *per se*, but it certainly appears to be a violation of the IRS code regarding 501(c )(3) organizations. It’s not “making a big deal out of nothing” — it’s activism that should not be given tax exemption. but IANAL (yet)

  • Miko

    Cat’s Staff:

    No matter who pays for billboard a non-profit group can not endorse or oppose political candidates and has the clear appearance of doing that.

    No it doesn’t. It merely notes that the candidate is running for the office, in the same sense that the ad sponsored by the real estate office mentioned that the real estate office existed but said nothing about its qualifications for buying or selling real-estate.

    If it had been intended to endorse or oppose a political candidate, it would have said something like “Vote For Donna Campbell M.D. for Congress” or “Vote Against Donna Campbell M.D. for Congress.” That would have been a violation of current IRS law. Of course, even that wouldn’t have been a church-state violation, since the First Amendment limits only what the government can do.

  • Claudia

    No it doesn’t. It merely notes that the candidate is running for the office,

    I disagree. If I put a sign on my yard that says “Obama for President”, the universal assumption is that I’m promoting his candidacy, not that I’m merely making a note of it’s existence.

    Had the sign said “Sponsored by Donna Campbell M.D. for Congress.” then they could legitimately say that they were merely noting the sponsor. Even if they had done “Donna Campbell M.D., congressional candidate” it would have been relatively OK. The most inmediate interpretation of “Donna Campbell M.D. for Congress” is “we want this woman to be in congress” not “this woman who is running for congress sponsored this ad”.

  • Samiimas

    Call me cynical but I think this was a planned political advertisement. I’m not that annoyed by the church-state violation as much as the use of code words.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas%27s_25th_congressional_district

    Donna Campbell is a tea party favorite. You know, the people who regularly talk about how they want to ‘take our country back’. The unspoken second half of that code phrase, understood perfectly by it’s intended audience, is ‘take our country back from those democrats who stole it‘.

    Like I said I’m cynical but this is Texas and I think the unspoken first half of that phrase is “Because of Obama we need prayer, for such a time as this.

  • heh, i had to look up “nahum” to make sure it was really a “sacred” text. my bad; i’d forgotten that one. i guess the fundies don’t think “Nahum” is a good name for their little believer children or it’d be more common.

    and let’s face it, fellow nonbelievers: the only time that “non profit status” thing matters? when it’s a Quaker church rallying against the wars, or a mosque being built two blocks away from a strip club that happens to be on the same city square as where 911 happened. fundie churches break that law *all the time* and get away with it, and both republican and democratic administrations look the other way. Rule of Law? that only applies to liberals, peaceniks and atheists.

  • cat

    @samiimus, you are right that ‘take our country back’ is coded, but you deciphered it wrong. It isn’t the dems who are the theives in fundie land here, it is the people of color (who they think run the dems anyway). This is an area that had to be forcibly redistricted by the Supreme Court because the gerrymanding was purposefully done in bizarre ways to ensure a white majority in every district. The ‘them’ taking over the country in context of this region and election are very clearly Latinos and their increased (up to federally mandated minimum standards) voting power. The phrase ‘take our country back’ is most often racist coding and this situation is no exception.

  • Samiimas

    @cat,

    I was just being polite, on most websites a shitstorm erupts when people point out the fact that the teabaggers don’t actually give half a shit about government spending or the economy, that they never protested once while a white man spent countless tax dollars blowing up brown people in Iraq.

    The shitstorm usually goes like this:

    “Your just saying they’re racist because you don’t like them!”

    “Then explain why they edited a video to try to frame an innocent black women in an attempt to distract the public when their leader mark wiliams got caught writing a racist letter.”

    Then they disappear or claim the NAACP edited that video to make themselves look stupid and then mailed it to Andrew Breitbart. Yes I’ve seen republicans claim that with a straight face.

  • Brian Macker

    It’s clearly an endorsement of Donna Campbell. It also quite clearly gives the impression that whoever controls http://www.ndpaustin.org is the organization doing the endorsement.

    Now it may be that NDP Austin did not endorser her and Donna Campbell put it up all by herself then that’s not a problem, other than just another lying politician. Although morally I would expect NDP Austin to clearly state “We do not endorse her, and call for the sign to be taken down.

    On the other hand if NDP Austin ever handled the money for this then it is clear that they approve of the message, and therefore are communicating the message that they endorse her.

    They also can’t disavow responsibility because Campbell paid for it because once money is donated to an organization they are in fact in control of the money. That’s even if the money came with strings attached because they had the choice to refuse the strings, and the money.

    I don’t think Campbell did this all on her own so I think it is clearly a violation of the non-profit laws.

  • Jagyr

    Yeah, there needs to be a “Sponsored by” above her name.

    Even then, if I was the non-profit putting up the signs, I’d politely decline offers from politicians to sponsor the billboard in such a way.

    It’s running right up to the line of the non-profit laws and leaning over slightly.

  • UPDATE: The NDOP political ad billboard and the eyeless nun billboard have been replaced. I got video of them a couple of days before, and I’m glad. But they’re gone now. Good!

    I will check into the status of the other 11 NDOP billboards, and report soon.

  • I’m not sure but I reported it to Americans United because they watch dog this particular sort of tax violation. They can endorse candidates if they pay taxes but not if they have the tax exempt status.

  • Brian Macker

    I don’t think “Sponsored by” gets the organization off the hook if they in fact were the ones putting the signs up. If they put them up then they are sponsoring them no matter who gave the money. They are co-sponsors. Saying “sponsored by” is in fact deceptive, because it makes it seem that it was put up by Campbell, when in fact the resources and staff of NDP was used in conjunction with funds provided to NDP by Campbell.

    Politicians cannot use non-profits to aid in their political campaigns.

    It appears they’ve realized this if they took the ads down.

  • Brian Macker

    The right thing to do would just to be to remove the gift tax and the idea of non-profits not paying taxes altogether (and that includes churches). Also the government should NOT be donating money to any private organizations for projects either. If the government wants something then it should just pay directly for that something and gain ownership. For example, if it pays for research on and anti-AIDS drug that results in a marketable product then ownership of the patents is public (in other words there are no patents).

    It would be wrong to interpret this as allowing the government to decide who can produce the drug, via the patent. It’s not like the money used was private. The very companies the government would try to restrict under such a scheme would have been the ones who paid for the research.

    However today the government not only doesn’t nullify any patents it actively allows private organizations to seek patents funded by their competitors via taxes.

    This is what happens when you have government providing further intrusions in the free markets in order to correct problems caused by past intrusions.

  • al

    I do understand why some people do not agree with this type of advertisement but at the same time my question is why is it wrong to do advertising using your personal faith?

    I believe exposing your faith in a non-aggressive way, regardless of how you believe, should not be a problem. I would like to know why this could bother some people so much.

  • Natasha

    @al

    The tax-exempt laws are in place to avoid just such religious/political entanglement. It’s to prevent the church from buying control in government. Seperation of church and state was established to keep the U.S. from becoming the same kind of oligarchy from wince our forefathers fled.

    But in spite of these laws, religious groups blatantly do it, especially at the pulpits. Preachers and priests regularly endorse candidates and encourage their flocks to vote this way or that. This is one main reason I left. I should be able to make up my own mind at the voting booth.

  • al

    I absolutely agree that you should be able to make up your own mind. Everyone should be independent in their own thought processes and decisions that may affect themselves their posterity. I might have a slightly different view, however, on the influence of religion on politics. Given that I get to choose what church or synagogue, etc., that I attend – I choose it based on similar belief system. In other words, I choose to be in a “like-minded” group of people. It does not mean I absolutely agree with every word spoken or that I blindly follow any opinion and take it as my own. However, I do weigh those opinions more carefully since someone who is “like-minded” (and I believe, it must be someone I know as a person and have spent time with to know where they are coming from) might have information on the subject that I do not have which might (or might NOT) support my belief system even more. I have been a part of various churches and such and from my experience, it is practically impossible to find a place where EVERYONE believes the same thing about EVERYTHING. And actually, I love that. It makes us unique, it makes us think, it makes us have to decide what we actually believe on our own. Those who accept and act on another person’s choice (for example, for candidate) should not be voting in the first place, since they are not making a personal choice.

    As a side note, I am not american, so my perception might be a bit off. I was not raised here, but in my country, voting is not optional. It is a requirement of every individual 16 years old and over. Forcing people to vote means that people who do not know HOW to vote end up selling their votes to a candidate who might buy them a week of groceries or a car. It is insanity and does nothing for the rest of us who want to make educated decisions for our government. Also, I could be wrong, but my understand of the “forefathers” of america is that, yes, they did flee from religious persecution, but not as individuals. They left as a group and wanted to instill their similar “like-mindedness” into this new found land. If it were not so, there would be no specific mention of “GOD” and their beliefs on Him mentioned in national documents such as the constitution. If there truly were “separation of church and state (as it is commonly defined now),” it would have begun then with them keeping their opinions of a high being and His requirements for them completely separate from the governing papers.

    @Natasha – thank you so much for commenting back. I love to hear other opinions. It is by meeting and listening to other people and other opinions that we learn as time goes by.