Over the weekend pastors at at least two Flagler County churches, New Way Church and Parkview Church, explicitly endorsed three candidates for the Flagler County School Board, featuring one or all three of the candidates on stage and giving them time to make campaign speeches, in apparent violation of federal law: churches may inform congregations about elections, they may invite candidates to speak, as long as all candidates of any given race are invited, but they may not explicitly endorse or back one candidate over another. Contacted for comment, Greg Peters, the head pastor at Parkview, asked for questions in writing. They were sent. He has not responded. Rabbi Merrill Shapiro of Palm Coast contributed the opinion below.
By Rabbi Merrill Shapiro
Yes, those are real tears! They are being shed by the angels who surround the Heavenly Throne. They are being shed for those Flagler County churches that so clearly have lost their way. They are being shed for those Flagler County churches that have no faith.
The churches of Flagler County have entered into an agreement with the government of the United States of America—also known as “We the People…”, state, regional and local governments as well–and become part of an agreement, an arrangement that works really well for the churches. The agreement, a contract, says that those churches or any houses of worship will not be required to pay taxes on their income as do so many other corporate and individual entities in our nation. Those churches will not need to pay state or local taxes either. No real estate taxes are required of the churches of Flagler County.
What has been required of those churches to access these magnificent benefits? Very little. But they must agree, they must “bear witness” that they will, in the words of 26 U.S. Code § 501 – “Exemption from tax on corporations, certain trusts, etc.” not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
To access those wonderful benefits, to be exempt from taxes, to have donors be able to deduct the value of their donations on their own income tax returns, the churches of Flagler County, indeed virtually all houses of worship in all 3,006 counties in this, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, have borne witness and entered into a contract agreeing that they would refrain from political activity.
“We the People,” that is, the government of these United States, have kept our end of the agreement. Too many churches in Flagler County have not been faithful to their part of the agreement. Those churches have “borne false witness.” They are churches without faith.
Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, a long-time Palm Coast resident, is a Past President of the National Board of Trustees of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has served as President of the Richmond, Virginia AU chapter, currently serves as president of the Atlantic Coast AU chapter, and chairs the FlaglerLive Board of Directors.