Cornerstone pastor, Rep. Boebert put faith in free speech but not the IRS

Rep. Lauren Boebert mingles with supporters at Cornerstone Christian Center in Basalt on Thursday.
Rick Carroll/The Aspen Times

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert was campaigning on Thursday at the Basalt church where Pastor Jim Tarr said holding a candidates event is no more out of bounds than other nonprofits accepting government dollars and engaging in politics.

Tarr’s Cornerstone Christian Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit place of worship, is the subject of a complaint that an anti-Boebert activist filed with the IRS in the summer.

In June, David Wheeler, the founder of the North Carolina-based and liberal-aligned political action committee American Muckrakers, reported to the IRS that Boebert’s speaking engagement at two Sunday services held at Cornerstone as potentially out of compliance with IRS regulations by holding a political event. The Silt Republican’s appearance at Cornerstone came two days before the June 28 primary elections in which she knocked out Republican challenger Don Coram, a state senator.

Wheeler’s report to the IRS about Cornerstone, called a “tax-exempt organization complaint,” said the church would not entertain his offer to also speak at the June 26 event or his offer to have Coram speak. Wheeler said the basis of his complaint was that Cornerstone’s having just Boebert speak ran afoul of IRS rules for nonprofit places of worship.

Tarr said that as a pastor of a house of worship, he can decide who is welcome to speak at the pulpit and who is not.

“It’s only ever brought up when conservatives invite a candidate to come and speak,” he said of Wheeler’s complaint. “You never hear anything about it when it’s liberal. The thing is that it’s been brought up, and the IRS haven’t brought it the full length because I think that they know that it’s unconstitutional to tell people what they can and cannot say. I’m an American; I’m not just the pastor. I’m a Christian, I’m an American and I believe in my right to say whatever I want to say or to also say that ‘This is a candidate that shares our values.’”

Supporters of Boebert and other candidates on the Republican ticket filed into the church lobby, where posters, buttons and stickers of conservative candidates were provided by host Eagle County Republicans in an event billed “Meet for Tea with Lauren Boebert.” Refreshments and light snacks were served. Tarr provided the Cornerstone venue to the Eagle GOP.

“There’s nothing that we’re doing here that goes against any laws, any IRS regulations,” Boebert said. “So Pastor Tarr, Jim Tarr, has not come out and endorsed me. But, when you are a pastor and have a certain tax status, I don’t think that limits your freedom of speech.”

The IRS website says it prohibits nonprofit organizations “from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

The IRS does make exceptions to the rule, however. Under the “voter education” exception, churches can host a political forum with opposing candidates if the event is not conducted in a biased manner.

“Depending on the facts and circumstances, an organization may invite political candidates to speak at its events without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status,” according to the IRS.

Tarr likened Cornerstone’s situation to Planned Parenthood. Both are registered with the IRS as 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organizations.

“Planned Parenthood is a 501(c)(3),” he said. “They receive public moneys; they endorse candidates. My world view includes God. People just say ‘Just stay in your lane,’ but then there is another world view that says, ‘No, we’re completely secular’, and then they have a seat at the table. I don’t think so. I think I have the same constitutional rights as any other world view, and so I just want to continue to walk in the mold of our Founding Fathers and our founding mothers who played a key role even in the Revolutionary War in calling people to fight for liberty and freedom.”

Tarr said Cornerstone is being singled because of its conservative values.

“Nobody has ever asked one Black church why they only have Democratic candidates come and speak at their church,” he said. “This has been going on for decades. There’s a huge uproar right now because of Cornerstone Christian Center, while these very same people for decades have allowed Democrats to just go to African-American churches. So, as far as Lauren Boebert speaking on a Sunday morning, this is a gathering where we come together, and we share our common faith. So, no, I would not have a person come in who would endorse abortion or some of these new agendas that are coming into our pubic schools. I would not have them come because that is our gathering where we share our values and we share our faith.”

Boebert, a first-term House representative, is running against former Aspen City Councilman Adam Frisch, a Democrat, in the November contest.

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