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Editorial: Maryland Heights church deserves to have its tax-exempt status suspended

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Grace Church candidate advocacy

Grace Church is endorsing two of its members for school board elections in the Kirkwood and Ritenour school districts.

Grace Church St. Louis needs to decide what it wants to be. It can be a tax-exempt megachurch that tends to the spiritual needs of its flock, or it can be a political entity that endorses politicians and spreads misleading information about candidates the church opposes. But it can’t be both under federal law — for very good reasons that go beyond the separation of church and state.

As the Post-Dispatch’s Blythe Bernhard reports, the Maryland Heights megachurch posted a flyer on its website supporting specific school board candidates, including Linda Henning for the Ritenour School Board and Jeff Mintzlaff for the Kirkwood School Board, both of whom are church members. On Tuesday, the flyer was removed from the website — apparently because someone at the church realized that it was a blatant violation of federal law.

It took us about 10 seconds to locate the Internal Revenue Service website that lists what activities are permissible and prohibited for any tax-exempt organization: “Currently, the law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as one ‘which does 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.’”

Churches are allowed to engage in limited lobbying or advocacy on “issues that are in the political arena,” the federal website says, but involvement on behalf of specific candidates or in opposition to others is prohibited. Yet that’s precisely what Grace Church did and continues to do, which in our book strongly suggests it should immediately have its tax-exempt status suspended.

Although the flyer was removed, a still-active website plays up Mintzlaff and Henning, among others. Favored candidates get a QR code attached to their names so visitors can go straight to their websites or Facebook pages. Disfavored candidates are portrayed in terms designed to skew their positions and exaggerate negative attributes.

The website characterizes Wentzville candidate John Kaelin as promoting “a move away from fact-based learning; instead advocates for equity & inclusion + the World Economic Forum ideals for education.” These are code words clearly designed to tell voters to steer away from this person. Candidates the church views favorably are characterized as being anti-pornography in the classroom, as if to imply ludicrously that others are pro-pornography.

Kaelin says he favors deemphasizing rote-memorization of facts and figures, instead focusing on critical thinking and problem solving. In the church’s code language, “equity & inclusion” translates as progressive, hard-left liberal. Linking Kaelin to the World Economic Forum is a coded way of associating him with billionaires like George Soros, a favorite boogeyman of conservatives. Kaelin says he was not consulted before the positions attributed to him were posted on the church website.

Federal law couldn’t be more clear. Grace Church has stepped far beyond the boundaries and deserves a thorough review of its tax-exempt status.

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