Chris Pyle, a former aide to Gov. Mike Huckabee, this month sent a letter to Arkansas church pastors encouraging them to get involved in this year’s gubernatorial election. However, pastors who follow his instructions could jeopardize their churches’ tax-exempt status, according to experts and Internal Revenue Service publications.
Pyle, who served Huckabee as director of family policy until this year, wrote in his letter, “Please hear me, I am in no way asking you to endorse anyone from the pulpit. … However, I am asking you to consider the seriousness of this election, consider closely the positions and records of the candidates who are running and then challenge your congregation to do the same.”
He then goes on to criticize some of the social policy positions of Mike Beebe, the Democratic nominee for governor. “I would never ask you to endorse a candidate from the pulpit,” Pyle stipulates before saying, “I hope you will … educate your congregation and [give] them a moral charge to get involved.”
Pyle now is director of communications at Delta Dental of Arkansas. He did not return messages left on his office voice mail.
According to William Blake, a spokesperson for the Interfaith Alliance in Washington, D.C., pastors who take Pyle’s advice risk losing their churches’ status as tax-exempt institutions.
“If he says to vote based on this issue, and that issue divides candidates x and y, that is something that would trigger an investigation of tax-exempt status,” Blake said.
In fact, an IRS fact sheet titled “Election Year Activities and the Prohibition on Political Campaign Intervention for Section 501(c)(3) Organizations” provides an example of a violation that is very similar to what Pyle instructed the pastors to do in his letter.
“Example 16: Candidate A and Candidate B are candidates for the state senate in District W of State X. The issue of State X funding for a new mass transit project in District W is a prominent issue in the campaign. ... Candidate A supports the new mass transit project. Candidate B opposes the project ... P is the executive director of C, a section 501(c)(3) organization that promotes community development in District W. ... P does not mention the name of any candidate or any political party. However ... P makes the following statement, ‘For those of you who care about quality of life in District W and the growing traffic congestion, there is a very important choice coming up next month. We need new mass transit. More highway funding will not make a difference. You have the power to relieve the congestion and improve your quality of life in District W. Use that power when you go to the polls and cast your vote in the election for your state senator.’ C has violated the political campaign intervention as a result of P’s remarks at C’s official function shortly before the election, in which P referred to the upcoming election after stating a position on an issue that is a prominent issue in a campaign that distinguishes the candidates.”
Blake said the IRS is increasing the amount of staff and resources it directs toward investigating tax-exempt charities that may be engaging in political campaigning. But he says there are larger concerns with regard to this kind of activity.
“Not only do we need to protect government of being free of a particular religious denomination,” Blake said. “We’re also concerned about protecting the integrity of religion itself. When people show up on Sunday and hear a religious leader who is turned into a partisan mouthpiece — that hurts religion.”