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How was tax-exempt Batavia church able to host ReAwaken America? It's complicated

Cornerstone Church in Batavia
Tom Dinki
/
WBFO News
Cornerstone Church in Batavia hosted the far-right ReAwaken America Tour Aug. 12-13, 2022, raising questions about the rules surrounding tax-exempt churches and engaging in politics.

One of the featured speakers of the ReAwaken America Tour is Greg Locke.

The pastor caused national headlines in May for declaring Democrats unwelcome at his Tennessee church. And he used that same rhetoric at the far-right roadshow’s stop in Batavia on Friday.

“I figure since we're in deliverance ministry we casting out devils, we might as well cast out Democrats while we at it,” Locke told the crowd. “Every last one of them baby-butchering mongrels, bunch of election thieves trying to bankrupt this economy, so we threw them all out.”

Locke’s political sermons, not to mention his presence on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building during the Jan. 6 insurrection, led to calls for his church to lose its tax-exempt status as a 501c3, which are prohibited from political activity. Locke claims he’s since withdrawn his church’s tax-exempt status.

Pastor Greg Locke
ReAwaken America Tour
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Pastor Greg Locke speaks at the ReAwaken America Tour event at Cornerstone Church in Batavia Aug. 12, 2022.

That same scrutiny is now on the nondenominational Batavia church that hosted ReAwaken America last weekend, Cornerstone Church, a registered 501c3 under the name New Hope Ministries.

The Genesee County Democratic Socialists of America is calling on community members to file complaints against Cornerstone with the Internal Revenue Service.

“To let the IRS know that this church is engaged in explicitly political activity,” said Genesee County DSA member Gregory Lebens-Higgins.

Cornerstone Pastor Paul Doyle said he’s unconcerned about his tax status, and is confident it’s his legal right to essentially say whatever he wants from the pulpit.

“I'd like to test the Constitution,” he said. “I think we do have a right to talk, no matter what the topic is. I think we can talk about anything that we want to. We can't yell fire in a crowded theater, obviously, but issues that everyday Americans in my congregation deal with, there is nothing that I cannot talk about.”

And under the current regulations and enforcement, Doyle may not be wrong.

The rules surrounding tax-exempt churches and politics leave plenty of gray area, and even when there are violations, the rules are rarely enforced.

“Over time groups have learned that they can skirt the lines, if not crossover a little bit, and still be largely OK,” said University at Buffalo associate professor of political science Jacob Neiheisel, who studies the Christian right. “I think what the IRS should be going after will be some kind of expressed statement from the pulpit to the entire congregation saying, ‘This is the way you need to vote, and it's for this particular person.’ And that absolutely does happen, but it's just very rarely ever dealt with at a bureaucratic level.”

What the tax rules say

The tax law in question is the Johnson Amendment, named after President Lyndon B. Johnson, who introduced the provision to the U.S. tax code when he was a senator in 1954.

It defines churches and other tax-exempt 501c3s as organizations that don’t “participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.”

“So the idea that they can't engage in any politics is a bit off,” Neiheisel said.

Churches, via things like sermons and newsletters, can express opinions on political issues of the day — as they often do with abortion — and can even invite candidates to speak at their premises, but they can’t advocate for or against specific candidates.

“Once you start pulling out those partisan terms, Democrat, Republican, and you put a capital letter at the beginning of them, then you're almost certainly engaging in partisan politicking,” Neiheisel said.

The ReAwaken America Tour certainly engaged in partisan politicking while at Cornerstone’s 20-acre property this past weekend. Republican congressional candidate Leon Benjamin spoke, and there were campaign signs for NY-24 candidate Mario Fratto.

And speakers were certainly unabashed in their praise for Donald Trump and criticism of President Joe Biden.

“I voted for Donald Trump,” Locke told the crowd, “and I’ve got news for you, them and the devil. I’m going to do it again. What about you? Hallelujah.”

Making matters more complicated: neither Trump nor Biden had officially declared their candidacy for 2024 as of Thursday. Although the IRS says a candidate is defined as someone who offers themselves — or is proposed by others — as a contestant for public office.

Campaign signs at Cornerstone Church ReAwaken America Tour event
Tom Dinki
/
WBFO News
Campaign signs for NY-24 congressional candidate Mario Fratto are displayed at Cornerstone Church in Batavia during its ReAwaken America Tour event Aug. 12, 2022.

But a crucial delineation is whether ReAwaken America could be considered an official Cornerstone event or not. The IRS allows churches and other 501c3s to rent out their property to campaigns for things like political fundraising dinners.

Doyle told WBFO last week that he was not charging ReAwaken America “a single penny” for using the Cornerstone property. The event was originally going to be held at Rochester Main Street Armory until the venue backed out over public backlash.

ReAwaken America, which spreads disinformation about COVID-19 and the 2020 election, has visited 13 other cities in 11 states since being launched last year by Oklahoma-based podcaster Clay Clark and ex-Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn last year.

Of its previous 13 stops, 10 have been at churches. Another was held at a Christian Bible college.

“So there might even be some additional gray area because this is not a regular church event,” Neiheisel said, “but the fact that they're sponsoring it is going to bring up something regarding their tax status.”

RELATED CONTENT: ReAwaken America Tour in Batavia includes calls for overturning election, New York AG to ‘repent’

Other guidance from the IRS includes instructing church leaders to refrain from making candidate endorsements at their church functions. Doyle briefly addressed the ReAwaken America crowd Friday morning, although he didn’t name Trump, Biden, or any other candidate.

“I see the same things that everybody else sees,” Doyle said from the stage. “If we don't do something, we're going to lose our country.”

But church leaders know how to get political messages across without explicitly endorsing candidates, said the Rev. Nathan Empsall. The Connecticut Episcopal priest was one of several faith leaders who spoke out against ReAwaken America Friday outside First Baptist Church Batavia.

“It's the same thing they do with political violence,” Empsall said. “They don't say, ‘Go commit violence.’ They let you connect the dots. They do the same thing with their endorsements.”

Rules rarely enforced on churches

Even if Cornerstone did violate the Johnson Amendment, it’s unclear whether they’d face any punishment.

More than 2,000 mostly Christian clergy deliberately violated the law as a form of protest from 2008 to 2016, yet only one was audited and none lost their tax-exempt status. That’s according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian advocacy group that opposes the Johnson Amendment. A spokesperson for the organization said it could not provide updated statistics.

Cornerstone Church Pastor Paul Doyle
Tom Dinki
/
WBFO News
Cornerstone Church Pastor Paul Doyle speaks with WBFO during the ReAwaken America Tour event at his church Aug. 12, 2022.

One of the only instances of a church losing its tax-exempt status was Pierce Creek Church in Binghamton in 1992. It had bought full-page newspaper ads telling Christians to beware of Bill Clinton.

Trump signed an executive order in 2017 directing the IRS to ease enforcement on the Johnson Amendment, but it’s difficult to say what, if any, impact it had, given the IRS already so rarely enforced the law on churches.

Neiheisel said the lack of enforcement is likely due to a lack of IRS resources, as well as a lack of whistleblower complaints.

“In many of the churches or organizations where this is going on, there's going to be nobody to complain because they're in agreement broadly with what the church is doing,” he said.

Doyle plans to continue discussing politics in his church. He said his members want spiritual advice on the news of the day, whether it be COVID vaccines, children’s education or the election.

“Politics is an awfully broad term, and it seems like there's a lot of issues that the church should be dealing with, that somehow got put into the political arena,” he said. “We'd like to bring some of these issues out of the political arena and bring them back into church where they deserve to be talked about.”

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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