IRS complaints filed against church over screening of conservative film featuring Mastriano

A complaint filed with the federal Internal Revenue Service asks the agency to examine whether tax rules for a West Shore church overstepped tax rules for nonprofit entities by hosting a Saturday night movie premiere. which featured in-person appearances by Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. .

The lawsuit, filed by Katherine Jarrett of Mechanicsburg, alleges that events surrounding Saturday’s premiere of “The Return of the American Patriot: The Rise of Pennsylvania” violated prohibitions against Christ Community Church in Lower Allen Township, as than 501(c)(3), to engage in political activity on behalf of a specific candidate.

Jarrett appears to be one of many people to file a complaint.

Mastriano is among a group of conservative leaders featured in the film, in his case for his leadership in both pushing back against Governor Tom Wolf’s 2020 pandemic shutdown orders and later helping to amplify false claims. by former President Donald J. Trump that Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential vote count was “rigged” for Democrat Joe Biden to win.

In the film, he’s one of several conservative Pennsylvania activists featured, and his 2022 candidacy isn’t directly mentioned, though Turley touts the strength of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement, as evidenced by the film. election of Republican Glenn Youngkin as governor of Virginia in 2021, and the special election victory of Republican Mayra Flores in a congressional seat in Texas in June.

Church leaders told PennLive on Monday they were confident they had done nothing wrong.

Christ Community executive pastor John March emphasized first and foremost that the film’s premiere was not a religious event: the Slate Hill Road facility was leased to Turley Talks Production LLC, the company run by the conservative commentator Stephen Turley who produced the film.

Second, March said, he and other church leaders were careful to place — in consultation with lawyers — restrictions on their deal with Turley that prohibited specific endorsements of a particular candidate or political party. , banned fundraising and even political paraphernalia, aside from clothing. that participants could wear on the site.

“Part of the thing was, ‘OK, you can’t do anything (politically) either. That means obviously we’re not going to do it. But you can’t do it. It can’t be a collection It can’t be an endorsement… And none of that happened,” March said. “There was no campaigning in the event whatsoever.”

A crowd arrives to watch ‘The Return of the American Patriot: The Rise of Pennsylvania,’ a film which features GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and which screened at Christ Community Church in Lower Allen Township . July 16, 2022. Sean Simmers | [email protected]

He specifically pointed to the case of a mobile billboard captured in photos by PennLive on Saturday. As Elizabethville owner LaVerne Browm drove the pro-Mastriano sign into the church parking lot on Saturday, organizers eventually told him to park it off the church grounds due to 501 rules ( c) (3).

Jarrett, who has spent most of his career working for nonprofits, said his objections were partly based on the fact that Mastriano was there.

“The rules are that you can’t favor one political candidate over another by giving them a favorable forum without any balance,” she said. “And as far as I know, (Democratic nominee) Josh Shapiro wasn’t there.”

She also noted in her complaint that the church promoted the event through its Facebook page, with its own discount code for tickets.

Church leaders received widespread praise from First Saturday organizers for agreeing to host the event after two Lancaster County venues were canceled by the company under early public pressure of the month. Turley Talks president Ralph Cochran was at one point elated that he had finally found a place he said was “revival proof… There’s nothing you can do to undo me!”

Mastriano, for the most part, seemed to be trying to honor the rules. In his Saturday remarks, he mostly celebrated the conservative movement that, in fact, propelled him to the top of Pennsylvania’s GOP ticket this fall, and urged the foot soldiers who have proven themselves — through the words of Thomas Paine and the Bible – to remain resolute for the campaign ahead.

The Franklin County state senator has never directly called for a vote.

But it’s hard to make the separation complete when you’re running for governor.

He directly mentioned Shapiro once in his 14-minute speech, during a complaint that Shapiro doesn’t get the same kind of media scrutiny he does. Mastriano quickly followed that up with a parenthesis: “I don’t do politics…it’s just an observation.” He denounced a Democratic Party that has “become so extreme… aided and abetted in the media,” noting how the Republican Party has narrowed its voter registration gap in recent years.

And on Sunday morning, a video feed of Mastriano’s pre-show meeting with Saturday’s VIP ticket buyers was posted on his campaign page.

The nonprofit exemption makes church donations tax-deductible, among other things, which is a big deal for churches and other nonprofits.

A Harrisburg attorney who has worked with a number of nonprofits on tax issues said Monday that if Turley’s event is deemed campaign friendly, the congregation could be forced to show they don’t. has not denied its space to other groups with different political perspectives.

But attorney Steve Schiffman also said that in practice, even if IRS investigators take up the case and conclude Turley’s event violated the rules, it’s still unlikely the agency will revoke the case. nonprofit designation of Christ Community for violation. He pointed to the centuries-old tradition of Democratic candidates making appearances at predominantly black churches on Sundays before a vote.

“They have a real aversion to going after churches,” Schiffman said.

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