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Campaign sign placed in front of Durango-area church raises questions

Church of Christ on Florida Mesa is tax-exempt, but rules apply when it comes to politicking
A campaign sign for U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert sits in front of the Church of Christ on Florida Mesa on Tuesday along Colorado Highway 172 south of Elmore’s Corner. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

La Plata County resident Ben Stewart said he was driving by the Church of Christ on Florida Mesa on Monday when something caught his eye: a large campaign sign for U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert.

Stewart, who drives that stretch of road nearly every day, said he found it “disturbing” and “insulting” that the tax-exempt church was broadcasting its politics in such a public way.

“If they’re going to pay their taxes, fine,” Stewart said. “But if they’re going to not pay their taxes while everybody else does and they’re going to break the rules made specifically for them, then they need to be disinfected in the light.”

Stewart said he has filed a report with the IRS against the Church of Christ on Florida Mesa for displaying the campaign sign.

The sign, which faces Colorado Highway 172 east of Durango, features a picture of Boebert with “Freedom” in large text and “Lauren Boebert for Congress” in smaller text. The church is at 620 Highway 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, as most of them have, are prohibited from advocating for a particular political candidate, said Bill Zimsky, a Durango attorney who has worked in election and campaign finance law but specializes in oil and gas law.

He said almost all churches have 501(c)(3) classification, which identifies them as tax-exempt nonprofit organizations.

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 hadn’t heard back from the tax agency as of Friday.

La Plata County Assessor Carrie Woodson said the Church of Christ on Florida Mesa has an assessed property value of $77,770. The church pays no property taxes as a result of its tax-exempt status.

The annual commercial tax rate the church would pay were it not for its exempt status would be $3,260 per year, Woodson said. But that rate might not actually be accurate because the property’s assessed value could be higher than the assessor’s books indicate.

“Typically, with exempt properties, they don’t go under the scrutiny of review that taxable properties do,” Woodson said. “So this value could be low because we have not (needed) to look at that value because it is tax-exempt and has been for many, many, many years.”

Stewart said when churches take sides for or against political candidates, they are supposed to lose their tax-exempt status, he said.

“Most of us are aware of this,” he said. “It’s just kind of a big middle finger to me and a lot of other people.”

Woodson said the Colorado Department of Revenue’s tax division is in charge of approving tax exemptions.

The Colorado Department of Revenue referred The Durango Herald to the IRS’s guidelines for tax-exempt organizations, such as churches and other religious organizations.

The IRS expressly restricts 501(c)(3) organizations, such as many churches, synagogues and mosques, from directly or indirectly participating or intervening in any political campaigns for or against any candidates 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 against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

Zimsky said pastors are allowed to touch on political issues during sermons. He offered the hot topic of abortion as an example of a subject that is fair game for discussion in church. But issues shouldn’t be tied back to candidates, he said.

Candidates can and often do speak at churches, he said. But again, they are barred from referencing elections. A pastor can encourage his or her congregation to vote in an election, as long as he or she doesn’t tell the congregation who to vote for.

“And he (a pastor) can introduce the candidate,” Zimsky said. “Because lots of them (candidates) go to church. He can say, ‘Hey, this is Bob Smith, he’s running for Congress. He’s a man of God.’ He can say that. ‘He does good work.’ But he can’t say, ‘Vote for him.’”

Zimsky said politics in churches and other religious institutions gets murky. But not when it comes to endorsements of particular candidates.

“Putting a sign in there would be engaging in a political campaign activity,” he said. “It’s just not allowed.”

cburney@durangoherald.com

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