A church in Missoula, Montana, isn’t backing down after neighbors accused it of violating its tax-exempt status by displaying large signs for GOP candidates on its property.
There are two large signs outside of Crosspoint Community Church endorsing Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Matt Rosendale and GOP Congressman Greg Gianforte, photos show. The church also has more modest yard signs backing state legislative candidates Adam Hertz and Brad Tschida.
The IRS says that by law, all non-profit organizations, churches included, “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.”
But Pastor Bruce Speer of Crosspoint Community Church said he’s not moving the signs, explaining that “our accountability is to God and the scripture first,” FOX Montana reports.
“We have allowed pro-life candidates to put yard signs in our church property advertising their campaign,” Speer said, according to KGVO. “We are not Republican or Democrat. Our party is Christian. It wouldn’t matter if it was a Democrat, if he was pro-life we would support him.”
What happens if the IRS finds a church has violated those tax code rules? It could mean the church loses its non-profit status and would have to start paying certain taxes, the IRS says.
One of the church’s neighbors, Don Lange, is among several who have complained about the signage, NBC Montana reports.
“I tried to get involved and get some dialogue going with the church to find out and let them know what I’ve been able to find out what IRS rules are — what’s legal in this situation,” Lange said, according to NBC. “And that didn’t happen.”
Lange said he’s going to report the church to the IRS, NBC reports.
A local lawyer said it’s a clear violation of the tax code.
“They’re playing pretty loose with the rules if you asked me,” said Paul Ryan, an attorney in Missoula, NBC reports. “There’s a freedom of speech, but you can’t have a freedom of speech when there’s specific regulations, i.e., they don’t get taxed. They have the benefit of not being taxed but they have to follow the rules that say you can’t become political. And they’ve clearly to me violated that.”
Speer doesn’t sound too worried.
“We are going to do what we believe God wants us to do, what we believe the Bible teaches no matter what,” Speer said, according to KGVO. “Our authority is not the Government, it is scripture.”
Speer also said his church had signs advertising pro-life candidates during the 2016 election season, FOX Montana reports.
President Trump signed an executive order last year that he said prevents the IRS from punishing churches and ministers financially for speaking out in favor of one political candidate or another, The Washington Post reports.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the executive order didn’t change much, and that the civil rights group wouldn’t immediately try to block it in the courts.
“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement at the time.