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This St. Petersburg church is too political, complaint to IRS says

A former mayoral candidate wants Allendale United Methodist Church’s tax exemption investigated.
 
After the murder of George Floyd in an encounter with Minneapolis police, Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg changed its sign to protest racial inequality. On one side: "George Floyd was lynched today by the police. We can't breathe!" On the other: "White supremacy: The most dangerous virus infecting our country since 1492."
After the murder of George Floyd in an encounter with Minneapolis police, Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg changed its sign to protest racial inequality. On one side: "George Floyd was lynched today by the police. We can't breathe!" On the other: "White supremacy: The most dangerous virus infecting our country since 1492." [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published March 31, 2023|Updated April 1, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — Allendale United Methodist Church bills itself as a “social justice, anti-racist, LGBTQ affirming congregation of believers.” Its pastor, the Rev. Andy Oliver, has led the way, speaking out on inequality and perceived injustices behind and beyond the pulpit.

The church has served as a backdrop for political campaigns, forums and rallies. Oliver is a regular at news conferences, demonstrations and TV appearances. Now, an IRS complaint filed by a former mayoral candidate questions if the church has crossed a line and should have its tax-exempt status investigated.

Vince Nowicki’s March 8 complaint charges that the Allendale church is involved in political campaigns and engaged in excessive lobbying. He attached 130 screenshots and clips of the church’s and Oliver’s individual social media posts and videos.

Two legal experts contacted by the Tampa Bay Times reviewed the complaint and found a handful of instances in which the church is likely in violation of the IRS’ rules.

Oliver said it isn’t the first time Allendale has been the subject of an IRS complaint, and that Nowicki’s filing is just another in a series of attacks — both frivolous and physical — against the church.

“I think if we were going to get a warning (from the IRS), we would’ve already gotten one by now,” Oliver said.

Those who support Allendale say Nowicki’s complaint is trolling. It is not the first time Nowicki, who withdrew from the St. Petersburg mayor’s race in 2021, has checked to make sure rules are followed.

He filed an ethics complaint against Mayor Ken Welch for promoting a family member, longtime city employee James Corbett. He also accused former City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman of not living in the district she represented. She then resigned after he filed a formal complaint with the council.

“I would see how at different events how political Andy Oliver was and stances that the church were taking to me just didn’t seem kosher,” Nowicki said. “As someone who’s a taxpayer of the city, I want everyone to be held to the same letter of the law.”

It is not the first time Vince Nowicki, who withdrew from the St. Petersburg mayor’s race in 2021, has checked to make sure rules are followed.
It is not the first time Vince Nowicki, who withdrew from the St. Petersburg mayor’s race in 2021, has checked to make sure rules are followed. [ Vince Nowicki ]

Clear examples

An endorsement video Oliver made for City Council member Richie Floyd when he was a candidate in 2021 shows Allendale’s famous message sign and exterior shots of the church. It cuts to Oliver in his collar inside the church’s main sanctuary with colorful stained glass behind him.

“He’s endorsing in his capacity as a pastor using the church as a backdrop,” said Samuel D. Brunson, a professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law who teaches tax and nonprofit law. “That violates the terms of the tax exemption.”

Pastors and leaders of religious congregations are allowed to make political endorsements, Brunson said. They retain their rights to free speech even though their workplaces don’t.

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But the church’s resources, like its physical building or a newsletter, can’t be used for those endorsements, said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a professor at Notre Dame Law School who teaches courses on not-for-profit organizations, election law and taxation of business enterprises.

That includes the church’s social media, too. In March 2022, the church posted, “Ron DeSantis is governing by hate legislation. Vote him out!”

At that point, DeSantis was a candidate running for reelection. Churches and nonprofits can criticize sitting politicians, but telling people how to vote for a candidate crosses a line, both experts said. Oliver said nothing gets posted without his approval.

“Closer to the election, closer to the line, if you mention election or voting or candidacy, that tends to push it across the line,” Mayer said. “Is this about criticizing policies or is it urging people not to vote for them? The word ‘vote’ is probably crossing the line.”

Pinellas County School Board member Caprice Edmond held her campaign kickoff inside the church in 2020. Churches often hold candidate forums, but Mayer and Brunson agreed that it’s best to invite all candidates. Oliver said Allendale didn’t extend the offer to others, and Edmond was the one who asked to hold her event there.

“I have real trouble figuring out how that would not be an endorsement,” Brunson said. “I would want to look at, did anyone else take them up on it, did all candidates know it was available?”

Excessive lobbying?

The examples of political activity were clear to Brunson and Mayer. The claim about excessive lobbying is fuzzier.

That’s because churches are legally allowed to lobby for legislation — which made up the bulk of examples used in Nowicki’s complaint — just not too much.

Exactly how much is not clear and there is no definitive case law on the matter, say both Mayer and Brunson. Federal law says a “substantial” part of a church’s activities can’t be spent lobbying, and some courts have suggested lobbying can’t make up more than 5% of the church’s time and resources.

“I would say very little of my day is spent on that,” Oliver said. “It’s just always what gets the most coverage or amplification or whatever.”

Peggy Elias of St. Petersburg, front, Jabaar Edmond of St. Petersburg and the Rev. Andy Oliver, pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, watch as organizers argue with police about whether tents should be allowed to remain outside City Hall on Aug. 10 in St. Petersburg.
Peggy Elias of St. Petersburg, front, Jabaar Edmond of St. Petersburg and the Rev. Andy Oliver, pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, watch as organizers argue with police about whether tents should be allowed to remain outside City Hall on Aug. 10 in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Allendale has held phone banks for gun reform, urged support for a $15 minimum wage and many times encouraged congregants to contact their representatives about legislation. Oliver has traveled to Tallahassee to speak out on legislation, participated in a tent city rally outside St. Petersburg City Hall for rent control and has held banned Advanced Placement classes on African American history. All of that is permissible.

“There’s no rule that a tax-exempt organization cannot promote diversity and inclusion,” Brunson said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me from a tax exemption why they would (complain) except to air their grievance.”

Does it matter?

Mayer and Brunson weighed in on a Texas Tribune and ProPublica investigation last year that found 20 churches that broke the law and made endorsements in elections while the IRS did nothing. Churches advocating on both sides of the political aisle were found to have crossed the line.

Mayer said that’s because the IRS is underresourced and inundated with work. Plus, it’s not politically savvy or popular, and there isn’t a lot of money to be made from it.

“The IRS isn’t going to revoke their exemption,” he said of Allendale. “I would put the chances of their revocation really close to zero.”

The IRS doesn’t confirm if a complaint has been filed or notify the subject of those complaints, said spokesperson Eric Smith.

Brunson said, from a policy perspective, it’s a bad idea to have rules on the books that aren’t enforced because it looks like favoritism.

“It’s by and large conservative churches endorsing candidates,” he said.

Allendale has been the target of online and in-person harassment. In 2018, the church’s message board sign was vandalized. The following year, a bullet was fired through the preschool’s window while 11 children were in the classroom. A few weeks ago, Oliver said more than 50 people protested outside the church and through megaphones called congregants a slur for gay people and “groomers.”

Oliver says he doesn’t just call out Republicans. He said he pushes harder on St. Petersburg’s elected leaders, who are often Democrats, because some campaign on the party’s values but don’t act on them.

And as for some of the examples that could be IRS violations, Oliver said crossing those lines is worth the blowback.

“At some point, I say for everyone and for every church, there has to be a line at some point that you’re willing to cross because the only thing that allows evil to flourish is for people of good will to remain silent,” Oliver said. “I think we’re in that moment here. So yeah, line crossed.”