A Houston church whose pastor issued a letter of endorsement for a congressional candidate should be investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, says Americans United.
In a March 6 letter to IRS officials, Americans United said that Steve Riggle, pastor of Grace Community Church, may have violated federal tax law by endorsing U.S. House of Representatives candidate Shelley Sekula Gibbs.
“Clergy may endorse candidates as private citizens,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “That’s not what happened here. Riggle’s endorsement letter repeatedly identifies him as senior pastor of Grace Community Church, conveying the clear message that the church supports Gibbs’ campaign.”
Riggle’s letter of endorsement was widely distributed by the campaign and carries the line, “Paid by and authorized by the Shelley Sekula Gibbs for Congress Campaign Committee.”
In the letter, Riggle calls on people to vote for Gibbs, writing, “I have pastored in the 22nd District for 24 years. It is not often I endorse a candidate for office. I want to know if they represent my values. I have thoroughly discussed the issues of life, marriage and family with Shelley over the years…. I’m convinced that Shelley has the experience, knowledge and values that fully prepare her to meet the challenges we confront in Washington, D.C.”
Lynn, in his letter to the IRS, asserted that Riggle stepped over the line. Federal tax law states that pastors may not use church resources to intervene in partisan elections.
“Nowhere in the letter does Riggle state that he is speaking as a private citizen,” wrote Lynn to the IRS. “The letterhead identifies him as senior pastor of Grace Community Church. No attempt is made to distance the church from this endorsement. Although the IRS permits pastors to endorse candidates as private citizens, it cautions that pastors must not do so in their official capacity as congregational leaders.”
Gibbs captured most of the votes during the March 4 Texas primary, garnering 30 percent. But that was not enough to clinch the Republican nomination. This month, she faces Pete Olson in a run-off election.
The two are vying for the seat formerly held by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. A Democrat, Nick Lampson, won the seat after DeLay was engulfed in scandal.