NEW PORT RICHEY — When a pastor posted a political sign outside his church while it served as a voting precinct on Election Day, it caused a stir. Still, it broke no election rules.
Nine days later, as Florida continues trying to determine who won what race, that partisan sign offers a lesson in why churches aren't supposed to be politicking in the first place.
The problem with the sign, experts told the Tampa Bay Times, is a tax problem.
The Internal Revenue Services prohibits tax-exempt non-profits, such as churches, from intervening for or against candidates in elections.
Violating those rules can lead to warnings, financial penalties or even revocation of the church's tax exempt status.
Now, it's unlikely the church will ever face such sanctions — but they do exist.
"If he's doing it as the church leader on church property, it's campaign intervention," Notre Dame Law School professor Lloyd Mayer said. "And this isn't even close."
The Rev. Al Carlisle made headlines Nov. 6 when he posted the sign on the property of his Grace of God Church that discouraged voting for Democrats. The sign angered Pasco County's top election official but sat outside the zone that bans campaigning within 100 feet of a voting site.
Carlisle posted a photo of the poster board-and-marker sign — which read, "DON'T VOTE FOR DEMOCRATS ON TUESDAY AND SING 'OH HOW I LOVE JESUS' ON SUNDAY" — on Facebook, causing a stir across the region.
The pastor told the Times that his message wasn't about individual candidates — and the message was his alone.
"It was not a church-sanctioned sign," he said, adding that lawyers told him no violation had occurred.
In the unlikely event that the church would have to defend itself in court, experts said those arguments may not hold up.
Religious leaders are allowed to express political views as private citizens. And places of worship have some legal room to lobby for or against issues of faith that intersect with politics, like abortion or same-sex marriage.
But that may not apply to the Election Day sign, experts said, because targeting Democrats as a whole is equivalent to endorsing the other party's candidates.
"The church is basically saying vote for Republicans," said Darryll Jones, a tax law professor at Florida A&M University, calling this an easy violation to spot.
Texas A&M University School of Law professor Terri Helge put it this way: "The message is clearly partisan in identifying Democrats as the group to oppose."
And the sign's context — a church leader using church resources to persuade voters — makes it hard to argue this was a private action, experts said. Church property can be considered a resource. And there's the fact that a photo of the sign was shared on the church's official Facebook page.
Keep up with all things Pasco County
Subscribe to our free Pasco Times newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
"It does appear that the pastor, as an agent of the church, has violated (the restriction)," said David Bell, a nonprofit- and church-law professor at The Ohio State University who is also a minister.
Still,were the IRS to investigate a complaint about the church, the experts said, the agency would probably end up just issuing a warning.
The agency has been wary of sanctioning churches in recent years, experts said, particularly in cases involving political messages delivered from the pulpit. It is also often lenient with first-time offenders that acknowledge the violation and agree to stop doing what got them in trouble in the first place, according to the professors.
The IRS may be even less inclined to act in the current political climate. In May, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to remove the risk of churches being financially penalized if pastors speak out in favor of certain candidates.
Carlisle said he has a team of pro-bono lawyers ready to handle any complaints. And he thinks the sign did its job, regardless of its legality.
"It has caused people to engage," he said. "It has challenged, it has provoked people — maybe to even consider their convictions."
Come the next Election Day, however, the pastor won't get the same chance to challenge anyone's convictions.
Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said the church will no longer be used as a polling place as long as Carlisle is the pastor.
Times senior news researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Justin Trombly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @JustinTrombly.