West Texas Saga: Federal Court Rejects Latest Effort To Bless Church Politicking In Lone Star State

A federal court rejects church politicking in Texas.

A recent ruling from a federal court in Texas about churches and politics has been overlooked – but it shouldn’t be.

Regular readers of this blog might recall a flap that erupted in El Paso after the city approved an ordinance extending health-care benefits to domestic partners. Pastors at some local fundamentalist churches went bonkers and announced plans to recall Mayor John Cook and El Paso City Council Members Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd.

Pastor Tom Brown of Word of Life Church took the lead on the matter, assisted by a front group called El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values. But in doing so, Brown's church  ran afoul of Texas law, which prohibits corporations (a designation that includes houses of worship) from making contributions in connection with recall elections.

A state appeals court subsequently ruled that the recall election could not go forward since many of the signatures on the recall petitions were collected in violation of the law.

Around the same time, a crony of Brown’s named H. Warren Hoyt, pastor of Jesus Chapel, sued Cook, the city of El Paso and other local and state officials arguing that the Texas law had a “chilling effect” on his right to get involved in politics. In court, Hoyt was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Religious Right legal group formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund.

A federal court has tossed the case, arguing it “fails for a number of reasons.”

U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone held that Hoyt’s church hadn’t actually circulated any recall petitions and thus its entire case was built on speculation about what might happen if it did. In fact, Cardone said, the church would have run afoul of the law only if it engaged in activities that amounted to making a contribution to a political campaign.

Cardone also noted in her Hoyt v. The City of El Paso ruling that some of the people and entities named in the lawsuit, such as Cook and the city of El Paso, don’t even have the power to enforce a state law.

The ADF’s claim that the Texas statute violated the church’s First Amendment right was not persuasive. Cardone held that the court “does not have before it a justiciable case or controversy.”

The situation in El Paso was an especially egregious example of a church jumping head first into electoral politics. The recall effort against Cook, Byrd and Ortega was anchored in Brown’s church. The church conceived, organized and ran the campaign.

This matter first came to Americans United’s attention in July of 2011. At that time, we sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service asking the federal tax agency to look into the matter. It’s unclear if the IRS acted because such investigations are conducted outside of the public spotlight.

But the story did hit the media, and that led a resident of El Paso to draw Americans United’s attention to the Texas law. We then forwarded our IRS complaint to state officials, who apparently shared it with local officials. We’re pleased that our efforts helped block a rather audacious attempt at church politicking.

I wish it always worked out that way.