Campaign sign in front of Durango area church raises questions – The Durango Herald
Christ Church on Florida Mesa is tax-exempt, but policy rules apply
La Plata County resident Ben Stewart said he was passing Christ Church on Florida Mesa on Monday when something caught his eye: a large campaign sign for U.S. Representative Lauren Boebert.
Stewart, who drives this stretch of road most days, said he finds it “disturbing” and “insulting” that the tax-exempt church is broadcasting its policy so publicly.
“If they’re going to pay their taxes, great,” Stewart said. “But if they’re not paying their taxes when everyone else is and they’re going to break the rules designed specifically for them, then they need to be disinfected in the light.”
Stewart said he filed a report with the IRS against Church of Christ on Florida Mesa for posting the campaign sign.
The sign, which faces Colorado Highway 172 east of Durango, features a photo of Boebert with “Freedom” in large print and “Lauren Boebert for Congress” in small print. The church is located at 620 Route 172, a busy road, next to Florida Mesa Elementary School.
Attempts to contact the church or a pastor for comment were unsuccessful.
Churches and other religious institutions with tax-exempt status, like most, are prohibited from championing a particular political candidate, said Bill Zimsky, a Durango lawyer who has worked in the area of election and campaign finance law, but specializes in oil and gas law. .
He said nearly all churches have a 501(c)(3) classification, which identifies them as tax-exempt nonprofits.
La Plata County Treasurer Allison Aichele said churches are tax exempt, but political campaigns are not.
Stewart said he filed his report against the church with the IRS on Monday, but did not hear back from the tax agency on Friday.
La Plata County assessor Carrie Woodson said Christ Church on Florida Mesa has an estimated land value of $77,770. The church pays no property taxes due to its tax-exempt status.
The annual business tax rate the church would pay were it not for its exempt status would be $3,260 per year, Woodson said. But this rate might not be accurate because the assessed value of the property might be higher than the appraiser’s books show.
“Generally, with exempt properties, they don’t come under the scrutiny of taxable properties,” Woodson said. “So that value might be low because we don’t (need) to look at that value because it’s tax-exempt and has been for many, many years.”
Stewart said when churches side with or against political candidates, they are supposed to lose their tax-exempt status, he said.
“Most of us are aware of that,” he said. “It’s just kind of a big middle finger for me and a lot of other people.”
Woodson said the tax division of the Colorado Department of Revenue is responsible for approving tax exemptions.
The Colorado Department of Revenue mentioned The Herald of Durango IRS guidelines for tax-exempt organizations, such as churches and other religious organizations.
Theirs expressly restricts 501(c)(3) organizationslike many churches, synagogues and mosques, to participate or intervene directly or indirectly in any political campaign for or against any candidate for public office.
Specifically, the tax agency says:
“Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition on political campaign activity. violation of this prohibition may result in the denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
Zimsky said pastors are allowed to address political issues during sermons. He offered the hot topic of abortion as an example of a topic that is fair game for discussion in church. But the problems shouldn’t be with the candidates, he said.
Candidates can and often do speak in churches, he said. But again, they are forbidden to refer to the elections. A pastor can encourage his congregation to vote in an election, as long as he doesn’t tell the congregation who to vote for.
“And he (a pastor) can introduce the candidate,” Zimsky said. “Because a lot of them (candidates) go to church. He can say, “Hey, it’s Bob Smith, he’s running for Congress.” He is a man of God. He can say that. “He does a good job.” But he cannot say: “Vote for him”.
Zimsky said politics in churches and other religious institutions is getting murky. But not when it comes to sponsoring particular candidates.
“To put a sign in there would be to engage in political campaign activity,” he said. “It’s just not allowed.”