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Second Iowa pastor takes aim at judges
A pastor from Waukee is wading into the retention election for three Iowa Supreme Court justices, asking religious leaders around the state to inform their congregations about “out of control” judges. But some contend the effort is actually encouraging churches to violate federal tax law.
Jeff Mullen, senior pastor of Point of Grace Church in Waukee, has launched IowaPastors.com, a site that aims to “build strategic partnerships to mobilize Pastors and Congregations to pray effectively and to vote righteously.” The site, along with its sister site – IowaJudges.com — focuses almost exclusively on the judicial retention vote. A disclaimer on the sites says they are “not associated with any other organization.”
Mullen and church officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But in a video posted on the site, Mullen takes direct aim at the judges, pointing specifically at the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in April 2009 that legalized same-sex marriage. And while he never specifically says pastors should encourage their congregations to vote “no” on retention, it’s clear he disagrees with the court’s decision.
“Our freedoms are in peril today because of judges. Not legislators, but judges,” Mullen said, later adding: “Inform your congregation about the importance of the judicial retention election and what it means to turn the ballot over and vote their values.”
Federal tax law forbids 501(c)3 organizations, including churches, from intervening in elections in support of or opposition to any candidate. Last week, Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a formal request with the IRS demanding an investigation of Cornerstone World Outreach, a Sioux City church that is urging Iowa religious leaders to encourage their congregations to vote against retaining judges on three consecutive Sundays leading up to Election Day.
It’s unclear if Mullen’s efforts are coordinated with Cornerstones, as the pastor of the Sioux City church refused to disclose who he had contacted to participate in his campaign.
Mullen and his website ask pastors to register voters on the Sundays leading up to Election Day, a practice that is completely legal. It also plans to hand out voter guides, which is also legal if the guides are truly nonpartisan, said Rob Boston, senior policy analyst with Americans United.
“Most of the voter guides I’ve seen over the years have not been fair and objective,” he said. “They are skewed in favor or against a candidate. They are partisan material.”
The voter guides on the site are provided to IowaPastors.com by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, formerly known as Iowa Christian Alliance. The group is a state chapter of an organization formed by Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition. Under his leadership, the Christian Coalition was investigated by Congress, the Federal Election Commission and ultimately — following Reed’s departure — had its tax-exempt status denied due to its politicking.
The flyers Mullen is using to educate voters on the judicial retention election – along with an accompanying video – focus on how much each justice is paid annually, including benefits, before laying out the argument against retention.
When they unanimously overturned our 1998 Defense of Marriage Act they…
- Disregarded the Iowa State Legislature
- Disregarded the Will of the People
- Disregarded 160 years of Iowa Law
What will they DISREGARD next?
- Property rights?
- Parental rights?
- Voting rights?
In addition to the website, Mullen appears to be partnering with the Iowa Renewal Project for a series of robocalls. The Iowa Renewal Project hosts conventions for pastors and church leaders in Iowa annually. Invitations are private and by word-of-mouth, and participants pay no fees to attend. The group provides hotel accommodations and meals for those who choose to attend. One of the project’s key sponsors is the American Family Association, a Mississippi-based group that is fully funding the campaign to oust the three judges here in Iowa.
From the robocall:
Hi, this is Debbie from the Iowa Renewal Project giving you a call about the elections that are coming up in November. We are calling all pastors and church leaders to encourage them to have their congregation voting and to vote informed, and we’ve created some voter guides to assist you with that. They are nonpartisan guides created by the Iowa Christian Alliance. If you would like to have them available to pass out to your church or to have them just available for your congregation, we’d love to send them to you. There is no charge. You can reach me at 951-698-XXXX or feel free to order them directly online at www.IowaPastors.com — If you just go there, you can go under ‘pastors’ or go under ‘resources’ and order them either way. Hope you’re having a great day. God bless.”
Charlie Smithson, executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, said under Iowa’s campaign laws a church would be subject to the same restrictions and reporting requirements as any other entity if it engaged in political activity. But churches historically have not been active in campaigns, he said, for fear that they could lose their tax-exempt status.
In reaching out to pastors, Cornerstone World Outreach in Sioux City said the Liberty Institute, a conservative nonprofit based in Texas, had pledged free legal support to any church that gets in trouble with the IRS.
“These are individuals who know they are breaking the law and just don’t care,” Boston said, later adding: “But I think more thoughtful religious leaders will want to be careful here. Not just because of the potential problems with the IRS, but because every poll I’ve seen shows people oppose pulpit-based partisan politicking.”
Boston said pastors are free to preach about issues from the pulpit, as long as they don’t veer into voting advice.
“The problem occurs when religious leaders tell people which candidates to support or not support,” he said. “They can even speak about issues. They can speak out against abortion. They can speak out against same-sex marriage. They simply cannot take the next step of advising congregants on how to vote.”