October 2016 Church & State - October 2016

Texas Church Pays $400,000 To Settle Case Over Political Activity

  AU admin

A Texas church is upset that it had to pay more than $400,000 as part of a lawsuit challenging some partisan political activity it undertook several years ago.

In a recent letter to the El Paso Times, Bishop Tom Brown disclosed that his organization, Word of Life Church, paid former El Paso Mayor John Cook $418,750 after Brown led an allegedly unlawful effort to remove then-Mayor Cook and two other then-city officials from office because they helped pass an LGBTQ rights law.

The spat goes back to 2010, when Brown and his allies worked to get a law extending health-care benefits to domestic partners repealed through a ballot referendum. They succeeded, but Cook and other city officials responded by passing a new version of the law.

That turn of events led Brown to form a group called El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values, which sought to recall Cook as well as two members of the city council, Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega. Cook sued, asserting that the group, which operated as an arm of Brown’s church, didn’t follow the rules for forming a political action committee. He also asserted that Brown’s church and others had made improper contributions to the recall effort.    

(In 2011, Americans United reported Brown to the Internal Revenue Service for violating the federal law that prohibits houses of worship and other 501(c)(3) non-profits from endorsing or opposing candidates for office.)

Brown’s church was found guilty in 2012 of violating Texas election laws, which prohibit corporations (a category that includes non-profit groups) from intervening in elections. The recall election was canceled.

In May 2016, the sides reached an agreement to settle the Cook v. Tom Brown Ministries lawsuit – with Brown’s church paying Cook a considerable sum. But it seems Brown isn’t willing to let the matter go.

“[Cook] abused his position knowing the courts would back up a mayor over the people,” Brown claimed to the Times. “He was right. Being mayor has its advantages. The office has power over the people, at least in El Paso.”

Brown went on to tell a sob story in which he accepted no blame for his own actions, claiming that the payment to Cook came from “widows, students and orphans.”

“Our church members had to come up with $418,750 or they would lose their church land,” Brown said in his letter. “In less than 90 days people sacrificially gave $127,115. The church refinanced the remaining balance.”

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