Fairview Baptist Church senior pastor Paul Blair invited recent mayoral candidate Brian Shellem to speak to his congregation before the April 4 election, but his church may have violated the spirit of IRS tax code by encouraging the congregation to vote for Shellem and donate to his campaign.
Shellem spoke during two different Sunday services at Fairview Baptist Church on March 5. At the services, he chronicled his path to living in Edmond and discussed his then-pending lawsuit against Edmond Public Schools. Eventually, he promoted a campaign event.
Former Oklahoma Rep. Dan Fisher, a teaching pastor at Fairview Baptist Church, encouraged parishioners to cast their ballots for Shellem and donate to his campaign.
“Thank you for all you are doing,” Fisher told Shellem before turning to Fairview’s congregation. “I know that he probably needs help in knocking on doors and just encouraging people to vote for him come early April.”
Established in 1998 and located at the intersection of Danforth Road and Sooner Road in Edmond, Fairview Baptist Church is considered a 501(c)(3) organization under federal law. Such organizations are prohibited “from engaging in any political campaign activity,” according to the IRS website.
More specifically, revenue Rule 2007-41 of the Internal Revenue Code provides:
Organizations that are exempt from income tax under section 501(a) of the Internal Revenue Code as organizations described in section 501(c)(3) may 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.
According to the IRS website, “violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” However, the IRS has largely abdicated its authority to enforce such violations.
While participating in a political campaign is prohibited, IRS code does allow for churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations to participate in a limited about of lobbying, including advocating for or against ballot measures and issues in the political arena. Nonpartisan voter education activities and church-organized voter registration drives are legal.
According to the IRS website, when a candidate is invited to speak at an event, there are three factors in determining whether an organization participated or intervened in political campaign activity:
- Whether the organization provides an equal opportunity to participate to political candidates seeking the same office;
• Whether the organization indicates any support for or opposition to the candidate (including candidate introductions and communications concerning the candidate’s attendance);
• Whether any political fundraising occurs.
Fisher: ‘I’d vote for you, buddy. Right now.’
At Fairview Baptist Church on Sunday, March 5, Shellem spoke during both the early service and the late service, describing his background and priorities. At one point, he said a local news publication claimed he did not believe in the separation of church and state.
“I said, ‘I think you’ve got it all wrong.’ Our Constitution says we should not have a state-run church. We shouldn’t have a church-run state, but that does not mean our government is absent from God,” Shellem said.
Continuing the conversation on religion and politics, Fisher told the congregation that Fairview Baptist Church is mixing the two.
“You know, you’re right. We all kind of get worried about, ‘Well, are we gonna mix politics and religion and all that?’ Of course, we are,” Fisher said. “I mean, how in the world would your religious beliefs not affect how you vote? Of course,” Fisher said.
Fisher, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate who represented District 60 as a Republican member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 2012 to 2016, continued by saying he would vote for Shellem if he lived in Edmond.
“We don’t want a state-run church, and as he said, we don’t want a church-run state. But we want Christians being salt and light, and the only way you can do that is to talk about these issues, and so I am honored,” Fisher said. “Even though I don’t live in Edmond, I wish I did, because I’d vote for you, buddy. Right now.”
‘Prayer and politics’
“I would hope that you can come to this event this Thursday,” Shellem said. “It’s prayer and politics. We’re going to be praying for our city. We do need to raise money.”
Shellem added that he would not solicit donations at the campaign event.
“This is not the area where we’re going to be raising money. You can come. We’re going to pray for our leaders. We’re going to have some time of worship,” Shellem said.
But Fisher encouraged the congregation to donate to Shellem’s campaign.
“Now friends, understand something — men like him will not get elected if people like us don’t go do it, and men like him will not get elected if people like us don’t help to fund his campaign,” Fisher said. “You cannot run these campaigns on best wishes and hopes. You gotta have some money to be able to do it. He has to buy yard signs. He has to put together all kinds of flyers and all these things.”
Although finance reports filed with the City of Edmond do not show Fisher donating to Shellem’s campaign himself, Fisher told the congregation to “step behind” Shellem.
“So, guys, this is an opportunity for us to do what we claim we’re trying to do. This church is always claiming we want to stand in the gap. Well, here’s an opportunity for us to do this very thing. Step behind this guy,” Fisher said. “Brian, thank you so much. God bless you, and I’m praying for a great victory very, very soon.”
Multiple text messages and voicemails left for Dan Fisher went unreturned prior to the publication of this story.
‘Mayor Darrell Davis loves traffic jams!!!’
Ahead of Edmond’s April 4 municipal election, a slate of political signs local candidates were posted near the boundary of the church’s property and the street easements on the west and north sides of Fairview Baptist Church.
Beyond signs supporting Shellem and other Edmond candidates, a neon green sign proclaimed, “Mayor Darrell Davis loves traffic jams!!!” Davis, Shellem’s opponent, was reelected to his second term on April 4.
Joseph Thai, an associate dean at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, said Fisher’s use of conditional clauses from the pulpit may allow the church to skirt by IRS code. But Thai said he believes that Fairview Baptist Church’s actions, particularly regarding the campaign sign opposing Davis, violate the intention of the law.
“I think it’s semantics whether it violates the letter of the law, though in my view it violates the spirit,” Thai said.
Since 2001, Fairview Baptist Church has been led by senior pastor Paul Blair, a former Oklahoma State University football player who played offensive line for the NFL’s Chicago Bears (1986, 1987) and Minnesota Vikings (1990).
For many years, Blair has faced criticism for blurring the lines between political activity and proselytization at his church. He lost elections for the Oklahoma State Senate in 2014 and 2016. In 2016, Blair was defeated in a GOP runoff election by eventual Sen. Adam Pugh (R-Edmond) in Oklahoma’s SD 41 race.
Ahead of the 2016 election, a media consultant for Blair’s campaign created controversy by endorsing Blair while announcing a football scrimmage at Edmond Santa Fe High School. An Edmond Public Schools district representative apologized for the incident, noting that Oklahoma law prohibits using school resources for political purposes.
After he lost the GOP runoff to Pugh, Blair expressed bewilderment over his defeat, touting his conservative credentials and saying during his concession speech: “We may not get a lot of respect in Edmond, but we get a lot of respect across the country.”
Asked May 3 about Shellem’s March visit and the alleged violations over the phone, Blair said he has always been “very open” with his congregation about his religious and political beliefs. He said he is not concerned about the IRS taking action against his church.
“Not even the least bit worried about it,” Blair said. “Never heard from the IRS in 22 years of ministry. I’ve gotten dirty phone calls from Barry Lynn, but couldn’t care less, Barry Lynn is just an upset individual.”
During the 2008 presidential election, Blair said he and 32 other pastors across the country — working with the Alliance Defending Freedom — each endorsed their preferred candidate and sent a letter to the IRS self-reporting the action.
“We sent them transcripts, video, audio — never ever heard from the IRS,” Blair said.
According to IRS code, pastors are allowed to endorse candidates publicly on a personal level. Blair donated $1,000 to Shellem’s campaign in January, according to Shellem’s contributions and expenditures report.
After being read Revenue Rule 2007-41, Blair said, “That’s actually not true,” claiming churches are “immune” from taxation.
“In 2012, the IRS actually released quietly a statement where they said the IRS does not grant churches tax exemptions. Churches are immune from taxation,” Blair said. “We are in no violation of the law. The government has no authority to tax the church. We don’t give up our rights for free speech when we enter the doors.”
Blair’s claim is only partially true. Churches that meet requirements of section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code are automatically considered tax exempt, but the IRS does hold the authority to remove that designation.
Davis, the incumbent Edmond mayor who defeated Shellem in April, said he was not invited to speak at Fairview Baptist Church during the recent election cycle.
Asked if he invited Davis, Blair said he would allow Davis to speak at his church, if he “lined up theologically.”
“I’d be happy to let Darrell come up and give his opinion about abortion and LGBT and where he stands on issues as well. I’d be happy to have that happen. In fact, we’ve gone down and talked to him before,” Blair said. “I just disagree with him.”
‘I wish he would have stuck with football’
Randel Shadid, who served as Edmond mayor from 1991 to 1995, said Paul Blair has preached politics for years. Asked about Fairview Baptist Church, the former mayor unloaded.
“I’ve known Paul for quite a while. I wish he would have stuck with football and stayed out of the ministry because, in my opinion, that type of basically white Christian nationalist is the worst thing that can happen for Christianity,” Shadid said. “The morphing of the Republican Party and the fundamentalist Christians is not doing the country any good, and it certainly isn’t doing Christianity any good.”
Shadid said the church has posted political signs along its property during election cycles for several years. Shadid believes the IRS should revoke Fairview Baptist Church’s tax-exempt status.
“They oughta come down on him and make all donations to his church non-tax exempt,” Shadid said. “But the IRS don’t ever do anything.”
Shadid said he is being “anti-Christian” himself with his comments about Blair.
“With the things they do, it’s hard not to feel aggravated and say things about them that are judgmental. My view of Christianity is, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Those are the basic teachings of Jesus Christ,” Shadid said. “They are so removed from those that it’s embarrassing to my philosophy of Christianity that they would call themselves Christians.
“I’ve always said when Paul gets to the gates of heaven and St. Peter meets him, he’ll say, ‘Job not well done my loyal but misguided servant.'”
During an hour long “Bible study” Wednesday night at Fairview Baptist Church — also known as Liberty Church of Edmond — Fisher discussed the concept of separation of church and state and the Johnson Amendment, which he stated was “unconstitutional.”
“Pastors are not bound by the Johnson Amendment. It doesn’t even mention pastors,” he said. “Now, should churches officially endorse candidates? I think probably not, but this church doesn’t.”
Fisher claimed that no church had ever lost their tax-exempt status for participating or intervening in political campaign activity, but he offered advice in the event that a church is challenged by the IRS.
“I’ve told pastors what they can do is dissolve that church, reconstitute it under a different name and start all over again. How many different names could you come up with for a church? Well, quite a few,” Fisher said. “What I’m saying is — churches that are running around afraid of the IRS are only giving them power that they really don’t have. If the church would stop running and start standing, you would be amazed at what would happen to the IRS.”
In 1995, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of a New York church for placing full-page advertisements in USA Today and the Washington Times on Oct. 30, 1992, four days before the 1992 presidential election. The ads opposed candidate Bill Clinton, citing his support of abortion, gay rights and the distribution of condoms to teenagers in public schools.
Fisher told the congregation that the IRS only revoked the church’s “tax-exempt advance letter” and not its tax-exempt status.
“That letter, that’s all it is. It’s just a letter, and that’s the worst the IRS was able to do — they revoked that letter. Well what does that mean? It means absolutely nothing,” Fisher said. “Even though they lost that letter, they never lost its non-tax status.”
Toward the end of Wednesday night’s lesson embedded above, Fisher referenced Shellem’s March visit, stating that the church did not endorse him.
“We’ve had a reporter tailing Paul and myself for weeks since we allowed Brian Shellem to speak here — who was the conservative candidate for mayor of Edmond — and he’s trying to interview us because he says we violated the Johnson Amendment by allowing him to speak,” Fisher said. “Do you ever remember us having a vote that morning after he spoke to officially endorse him as Liberty Church of Edmond? No.”