Editorial: Pastor's endorsement of candidate merits probe - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Pastor’s endorsement of candidate merits probe

Albuquerque megachurch leader Steve Smothermon has been no stranger to controversy throughout the pandemic. The head pastor of Legacy Church has come under criticism for not enforcing mask and social distancing mandates at church services, discouraging parishioners from getting the COVID-19 vaccine and encouraging congregants and the public to disregard the state’s public health orders.

The church was fined $10,000 by the New Mexico Health Department in December 2020 after social media posts showed tightly packed worshippers at a Christmas Eve service with few masks in sight. Churches in New Mexico were limited to 25% capacity at the time. Legacy filed a lawsuit against the state in federal court in April 2020 claiming the governor violated the First Amendment that protects freedom of religion. A U.S. district judge rejected the request for a religious exemption and dismissed the lawsuit.

Critics of Smothermon say he has used his power of the pulpit to endanger others. Some have suggested the IRS strip the church of its tax-exempt status. Now, a video of a Nov. 16 service shows Smothermon explicitly endorsing Albuquerque City Council runoff candidate Lori Robertson: “We need people like her on the City Council to make sure this crazy guy they call mayor doesn’t continue to push his agenda.”

The IRS code on churches and religious organizations with 501(c)(3) status says these tax-exempt entities “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Violations “may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

Robertson’s opponent in the Dec. 7 runoff, Tammy Fiebelkorn, hopes the state attorney general and IRS will investigate Smothermon, who says, “We have surely done nothing wrong, and believe we have conducted ourselves within the bounds of the law, given our First Amendment rights.”

It is a shame Legacy Church’s pastor has put its important missions aiding the downtrodden at risk. Losing its tax-exempt status could have a chilling effect: Its physical properties could be taxed, and donations to the church could no longer be claimed as tax deductions. But ignoring Smothermon’s apparent violations of IRS code would only license more elective politics from the pulpit.

Fiebelkorn has a point. The case merits investigation.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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