BRANDON — On a Tuesday in August, Bell Shoals Baptist Church again became the center of Hillsborough County's political universe, if only for a night.
For the 20th time in 30 years, the megachurch in eastern Hillsborough hosted a candidates forum. The turnout Aug. 5 was impressive: More than 40 candidates — from aspiring School Board members to incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — spoke to a crowd of more than 600.
But first, Bell Shoals had a few questions for the politicians.
Attached to the invitations to attend, the church had emailed questionnaires to candidates. The same 16 questions went to everyone and covered federal and state issues including abortion, immigration and gay rights. While some dealt with complicated matters — No. 4: "Do you agree that the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees an individual the right to own and possess firearms and this right should not be infringed upon in any way?" — candidates were restricted to one-word answers: yes, no, unsure.
Bell Shoals members who compiled the responses into a voter guide say they performed a public service by informing church members where candidates stand. But to some Democrats, the questions were inappropriate ways to gauge their fitness for local office.
While Bell Shoals does not endorse candidates, one Democrat thinks the questionnaire is an attempt to highlight conservative candidates — a potential violation of Internal Revenue Service rules barring nonprofit organizations from certain types of political activity.
"It seems to be wholly inappropriate for a 501(c)3, particularly a church, to do that," said Pat Kemp, a Democrat running for the Hillsborough County Commission District 7 seat. She declined to fill out the questionnaire or attend the forum. "It strikes me as an open violation of the law."
Fellow Democratic commission candidate Elizabeth Belcher, running for District 2, also declined to answer the questionnaire but did attend the forum.
The Rev. John Martin, a forum organizer, was surprised by the criticism.
"I honestly don't even know what to say to that," he said. "We want people in the community to know what the issues are. We feel like we are servants in the community."
The questionnaire and forum are run by Bell Shoals' Community Issues Team, volunteers who also organize issue-specific forums on topics like Common Core and medical marijuana. The Community Issues Team is nonpartisan but guided by the Bible.
"We want to approach the issues from a biblical stance," said Dennis Miller, 63, chairman of the team. "The rest of the world out there has the world view. We try to help people understand the biblical point of view."
Bell Shoals is not the only local church to host a candidates forum. What sets it apart from churches like Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz is the questionnaire and voter guide.
IRS restrictions on 501(c)3 activity do not bar voter guides, provided they are nonpartisan. What constitutes bias in a voter guide, though, is debatable.
"There's not a whole lot of clear absolutes," said Abby Levine, legal director of Bolder Advocacy, an organization that advises nonprofit groups about political activity. "The IRS interprets all this under a broad standard based on all the facts of a case."
Levine offers guidelines on how nonprofits can compile voter guides and not draw the ire of the IRS. Bell Shoals follows many of them: The questionnaires are distributed to candidates regardless of party affiliation, the voter guides don't compare candidate stances with church stances, and they cover a broad range of topics.
Levine does advise against requiring one-word answers, though, and says questions should be open-ended.
Democrats Kemp and Belcher are not the first to notice that the Bell Shoals team is not interested in asking about local issues.
When Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Republican, visited Bell Shoals in the past, he said he tried to explain that his personal stance on an issue like abortion wouldn't matter on the County Commission. Sharpe leaves office this fall because of term limits.
"I often would say look, I'm not running for deacon," Sharpe said. "I'm running for county commissioner, and there's a difference."
To Bell Shoals members, though, getting one-word answers on issues like gay marriage and abortion is important.
"Some people want to elaborate … want to give that political answer. We just want to know 'yes' or 'no,' " Miller said. "It tells you the characters and principles by which a person lives by."
Even if local officeholders don't deal with issues like abortion rights now, they may someday.
"Everybody starts someplace," Martin said. "Five years from now, you may run for something else. And we'll want to vet you."
Support for the Bell Shoals forums came last week from perhaps an unlikely source — Joe Redner, owner of the Mons Venus strip club.
In 2010, Redner, then running for state House, drew jeers at the forum as he offered a prayer for a California judge who ruled in favor of gay marriage.
In a phone interview this week, Redner — who did not win that seat — initially agreed with complaints that the questionnaire is designed to favorably identify conservative candidates.
Then he changed his mind.
"They are just looking at a bunch of issues, right?" he said. "That's how you separate candidates and pick the ones you want to vote for. On the issues."
Contact Will Hobson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.