Aug 15, 2011

Looks like El Paso’s political pastor Tom Brown may be in a lot more trouble than he thought.

Americans United filed a complaint about his ministry with the IRS for involvement in electioneering, and now he’s coming under scrutiny from the El Paso’s district attorney’s office. An investigation has been launched into Brown’s use of church resources to try to recall Mayor John Cook and two city council members.

Brown wants Mayor Cook and Council Members Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd out because they voted to extend benefits to domestic partners. The law requires 6,100 signatures for the city to hold a recall election.

In July, Brown announced to his congregation at Word of Life Church that he planned to kick off the recall campaign and has been using his Tom Brown Ministries website to coordinate the campaign since.

The El Paso Times reports that the website has also been circulating a petition and collecting signatures from other churches.

In July, AU wrote to the IRS and called for an investigation into Brown’s ministry for seeming to violate federal tax law, which prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, including houses of worship and other religious groups, from participating in elections.

It turns out the ministry’s political activities may also violate Texas state law. (Once AU learned this, we followed up with a letter to the state attorney general, as well.)

The Texas Election Code states that corporations (including nonprofits like Tom Brown Ministries) are prohibited from making “a political contribution or political expenditure in connection with a recall election, including the circulation and submission of a petition to call an election.” Violations of this law are punishable as a third-degree felony.

That is serious and certainly something that pastors should look into before turning their churches into campaign central. Religious leaders should be aware that both federal and state laws may apply to electioneering intervention.

It’s pretty clear Brown didn’t realize what he got himself into. After AU filed the initial IRS complaint, Brown tried to dismiss our action, calling Americans United “anti-religious” and “very liberal.”

"They are known for attacking people of conservative values as well as those who are Bible believers -- so they're just trying to intimidate us to try to get our voice silenced,” he told One News Now.  “But their intimidation is not going to work."

Perhaps the possibility of being slapped with a felony will get Brown’s attention.

Check out the work Americans United does to stop religious organizations from being transformed into political machines on our Project Fair Play website, You’ll see that we have filed complaints involving church endorsements of Republican, Democratic and independent candidates. You’ll also see that this has nothing to do with being “anti-religious” but everything to do with preserving the integrity of religion and the democratic process.