Local church might have crossed line between religion and politics, campaign finance reports reveal

Jordan Meier
Candidate Chuck Smith

PITTSBURG, Kan. — A telltale sign that election season is once again here is when candidate mailers start showing up. The usually red, white and blue pieces of cardstock with a picture of a candidate and a catchy slogan are stuffed in any mailbox left and right once fall comes around on an election year. Most of the time they find their way into the trashcan, fire or litterbox without a second thought and life goes on.

But this year, one candidate’s mailers could prove problematic if federal officials decide to pursue what may be a violation of law governing non-profit organizations — though the rule banning the specific violation in question is rarely enforced.

Chuck Smith, currently running for the Kansas House of Representatives against Rep. Monica Murnan in District 3, has been using Pittsburg’s Catholic church, Our Lady of Lourdes, mailing equipment to post and distribute his mailers to every voter in the district.

The Morning Sun received a tip on Thursday, Oct. 29, outlining the expenditures paid to Our Lady of Lourdes in the amount of $4,042.50 and $700 for “postage for mailers” and “postage for mailing flyers”.

These expenditures seem harmless enough, but according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) “all IRC 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.”

As a part of the Catholic Church, Our Lady of Lourdes falls under these restrictions as it is tax exempt, and thus its activity with Smith’s campaign is seen as questionable by some in the community.

Smith, however, denies working directly with the church. 

“I haven’t worked with them at all. I used their postage meter and that’s it,” he said. “I know I can’t work with them and they know they can’t work with me.”

Smith worked at St. Mary’s-Colgan High School, the high school affiliated with Our Lady of Lourdes, for a number of years as the athletic director and head football coach and still has a close relationship.

“I know I should have used someplace in Kansas City,” he said.

Lloyd Mayer, a law professor at Notre Dame specializing in American tax law, said letting Smith use the equipment could violate the statute, if it was not readily available to his opponent.

“The IRS states that a charity, including a church, is allowed to sell or rent services to a candidate, but only if they make it readily available to any candidate and generally to the public,” he said.

Including being equally available, the IRS outlines multiple factors to consider when addressing these issues including “whether the fees charged are at the organization’s customary and usual rates” or “whether the activity is an ongoing activity of the organization or is conducted only for the candidate.”

Mayer said that the consequences of violating this law is “potentially loss of tax-exempt status and excise taxes on the organization and its leaders.” However, he also said it's unlikely that would happen as the IRS has only gone after a handful of these violations since the 1950s.

“I say potentially, because the IRS has historically only issued warning letters if it finds the charity was unaware of the rule or how it applied to what the charity was doing, particularly if the charity promises not to repeat the violation in the future,” he said. “The IRS also has to follow special procedures in order to begin an investigation of a church, which tends to reduce enforcement of the rule against churches, plus the IRS is understandably wary of going after churches absent a clear violation." 

In 2017, President Trump did issue an executive order instructing the IRS to relax enforcement against churches engaging in political activity, but Mayer said that doesn’t matter.

“It’s in the statue, this is not the IRS making things up,” Mayer said. “It’s in the statue, it’s the law. Congress created it; President Trump can’t eliminate it.”

Our Lady of Lourdes could not be reached for comment by press time.