There are five seats on the Modesto Irrigation District Board in California, and Jake Wenger is one of the people who’s up for re-election next month. This is a group of people that makes decisions about electricity and water in the region, so while it’s not exactly the most exciting thing you’ve ever seen, it’s incredibly important.
Stu Gilman is a local resident who thinks he can do a better job that Wenger, who represents his district, so he’s challenging him in the race. That’s fine. That’s how politics works. Their policy proposals are irrelevant right now.
The reason it’s worth mentioning here is that Gilman also happens to be on the board of The House Modesto, a megachurch in the region. And on October 1, Pastor Glenn Berteau used part of the Sunday service to give Gilman the stage. Gilman gave what was essentially a six-minute campaign speech, telling the congregation why he deserved their vote, encouraging them to stop by his table outside the sermon area for more information, and recruiting them to spread the word about his efforts.
It’s all a direct violation of IRS rules prohibiting churches from endorsing candidates from the pulpit, the rule that Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress are trying to repeal (but haven’t yet).
See it for yourself around the 36:36 mark below:
Garth Stapley of The Modesto Bee summarizes what you just saw:
… Senior pastor Glen Berteau embraced Gilman’s six-minute message, encouraged people to visit a campaign table Gilman set up in the church, and told his congregation that pulpit politicking is appropriate because “we care for the people in our city,” not just those at church.
“Stu is running for something he believes in,” Berteau said. “I’ve known him for years, he’s involved in our church, he asked and I said, ‘Yeah, come up and share with the people’.”
[Gilman] thanked Berteau for his “promotion,” and the pastor asked Gilman to notify him as other MID seats come up for election, “so we can vote and get a right guy in there.”
This is incredible, blatant abuse of the rules that apply to all non-profit groups. The ACLU cannot send you a letter telling you who to vote for. Neither can the NRA. But this church is sending a very clear message to its 8,000 weekly members that voting for Gilman is the right — dare I say Christlike — thing to do.
Wenger, the incumbent, hasn’t spoken in front of a church, in part because he wants his record to speak for itself. But when 8,000 people are told how to vote in an election for an irrigation board, it can tip the scales. Consider this: In 2013, when Wenger was first elected, he won with 2,765 votes.
You think this church endorsement doesn’t matter?
When The House plays politics like this, they don’t deserve to get a tax exemption for it, too.
Emerson Drake of the Eye on Modesto blog has an excellent explanation of the actual policies in play here, but he also notes that the Freedom From Religion Foundation “will be filing a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service.”
When FFRF sued the IRS a few years ago over its inaction on these matters, the IRS promised to take these matters seriously in the future (or risk another lawsuit from FFRF).
This Modesto church presents a crystal-clear violation of the law. What’s the IRS going to do now?
(Thanks to Brian for the link)