A Denver pastor is soliciting donations and recruiting volunteers to benefit a political campaign. The campaign is for the pastor’s son, Jono Scott, who is currently running for a seat on the Aurora City Council.
That’s what you’d expect from a dad who wants to help his son win an election.
The problem is that Craig Scott, Jono’s father, made the solicitations during multiple sermons at Woodside Baptist Church in Denver, where he is a senior pastor. As a charity that accepts tax-deductible donations — and is recognized as such by the IRS — Woodside is forbidden by federal law from helping specific candidates in any way.
“He’s got like four or five weeks left before elections, and he’s got like 250 signs coming in that need to be put somewhere,” said Craig Scott from the pulpit at Woodside Baptist Church in Denver Oct. 1, referring to his son Jono Scott. “And he’s got some people helping him but not enough. He’s not recruiting. I am.”
Craig Scott told churchgoers that he’d recently heard his son Jono, a Republican, debate his opponents in the Council race and Craig Scott said he was “just blessed to hear the way God gave him the right answers.”
Then Craig Scott called out specific members of his flock who were already involved in his son Jona’s campaign and encouraged others, if they want to “be a blessing,” to sign up to help. [Beginning at 1 minute 15 seconds here]
“I just want to say, if you want to be a blessing, and you want to give some time — I know my wife walks, I don’t know how many times a week, handing out flyers,” said Craig Scott during his Oct. 1 sermon, according to a video obtained from a source. “We’ve got ladies. I know Sue [inaudible] and Debbie helped put the sigs together. But if you want to be a blessing and help with the walking, handing out the brochures, and putting signs up. Now it’s show time, because here’s a man that gots values. He’s a biblicist. It’s all about the gospel for him. And he’s going to be representing 400-and-some-thousand people, Lord willing. So if you want to be a blessing to help, then see him.”
Although churches are allowed to endorse ballot issues, Congress passed a ban on churches and nonprofit charities — 501(c)(3) organizations — that restricts them from endorsing specific political candidates in any way. The statute states that 501(c)(3) organizations should “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.”
However, this restriction does not bar charities and churches from hosting political activities that do not endorse candidates — such as holding forums or debates with candidates. Individual members of an organization are allowed to express candidate endorsements and political opinions, but only as long as it is clear they are operating separately from the entity they represent.
For example, if a pastor declares that they are voting for a candidate at an event separate from their church and clarifies that they are not representing a congregation, the action is completely legal. Conversely, a pastor may not endorse a candidate on behalf of their congregation or acting as a church-affiliate, which includes endorsement during a sermon.
The federal law — known as the Johnson Amendment — is clear, but enforcement of it is a low priority of the IRS, which has issued a handful of warnings and conducted few investigations over the past decade, despite brazen political activity by churches and despite public opposition to partisan political campaigning at religious institutions.
Citing the IRS rules, Bob Boston of the Washington D.C.-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said via email that nonpartisan races, like the Aurora City Council election, are covered by the Johnson Amendment.
“As you can see, the language covers all campaigns and all candidates,” wrote Boston. “There is no carve out for nonpartisan races.”
During the same Oct. 1 sermon, Scott also solicited funds for his son Jono’s campaign.
“I know that some of us, many of us actually, wanted to be — and want to be — a blessing to pastor Jono financially,” said Scott from the pulpit. “Those signs cost money. Those brochures cost money. Several thousands of dollars. And if God lays it on you heart, I would encourage you to give toward that. Ask him what you need to do to give. Well, we are in Proverbs chapter three. We are going to be talking about… .”
Jono Scott is also a pastor at Woodside Baptist Church, as part of the youth ministry.
In another sermon, on Oct. 29, Craig Scott said his son Jono has the “respect of the conservative council people.”
“They are doing everything they can to support him,” said Craig Scott from the pulpit. “So should we. He has our respect. Amen folks. Tell everybody. You want to get involved. Yesterday we had a great day. Some of you were there, writing cards, others of us making calls. That’s why I about lost my voice tonight. …Anyway, if you want to help, see pastor Jono. Let’s stand for a work of prayer. The election date is coming up in, what, nine days. Yikes. Be sure to vote. If you are not in Aurora, by next week, move to Aurora.
Jono Scott can be seen behind Craig Scott during the Oct. 29 sermon.
Jono Scott did not reply to an email asking why he didn’t stop his father from seeking political support for his campaign — and whether he also conducts campaign-related activities when he’s acting in his role as a pastor at Woodside Baptist.
Jono Scott is running for an at-large seat on the Aurora Council. He faces fellow Republican Curtis Gardner and Democratic candidates Dr. Thomas Mayes and Alison Coombs, an incumbent.