On November 2, there were 5 candidates running for the District 7 City Council seat being vacated by City Councilor Diane Gibson who decided not to seek a second term. In general, District 7 is the Mid-heights council district that includes Coronado Shopping Center and Uptown surrounding areas and parts of the near northeast heights with Lomas, Carlisle and Menaul all part of the southern border, Montgomery as the Northern border and Eubank as the Eastern Boarder.
On November 2, no candidate received 50% of the vote and a runoff is required between the top two candidates and the runoff is scheduled for December 7. On November 2 Republican Lori Robertson came in first securing 32% of the vote as a privately financed candidate spending $72,687. Democrat Tammy Fiebelkorn came in second with 24% of the vote and she was a public finance candidate spending $44,194. Both Robertson and Fiebelkorn are now privately financed candidates for the December 7 runoff election.
WESTSIDE LEGACY CHURCH PASTOR STICKS HIS NOSE INTO DISTRICT 7 CITY COUNCIL RUOFF RACE
Legacy Church is a Christian Fundamentalist Church with 3 locations in Albuquerque with Steve Smothermon as the main pastor. Legacy Church is considered the largest Christian fundamentalist congregation in the city with its main church located on the city’s westside. Legacy Church pays no taxes on congregation tithe nor on other donations because it is a 501 (c) (3) charitable organization.
On Tuesday, November 23, Pastor Steve Smothermon of Legacy Church, told his congregation to vote for Republican Lori Robertson over Democrat Tammy Fiebelkorn. In a video posted by the church, Smothermon is heard telling his congregants:
“Listen, early voting is open now. Go vote till December 4 because we need people like her on the city council. … We need people like her [Lori Robertson] to make sure this crazy guy they call mayor doesn’t continue to push his agenda. …”
Smitherman is heard on the video telling his congregation that Robertson had an information booth set up in the foyer of the church for people who wish to speak with her after the service.
When contacted by news agencies for comment about what he said during his religious service, Pastor Steve Smothermon had this to say:
“We have surely done nothing wrong, and believe we have conducted ourselves within the bounds of the law, given our First Amendment rights. … Separation of church and state was originally intended to protect the church from government persecution. Indeed, this country was in great part founded by those seeking religious freedom.”
On Wednesday, November 24, Tammy Fiebelkorn said she hoped that the state Attorney General’s Office as well as the Federal Internal Revenue Service would investigate and she had this to say:
“I would never set up a informational table for an election in a church lobby under any circumstances because there is a separation of church and state. Churches are 501c3 nonprofits and should not be engaging in political discourse like that. … I have always been told that nonprofit 501(c)(3)s are not supposed to engage in political discourse. … I really hope that the AG and the IRS look into this and see if what he did violated the church’s nonprofit status. More importantly, I really hope that the District 7 voters get out and make their voices heard.”
When contacted by news agencies for a response to Fiebelkorn and to Pastor Steve Smothermon actions, Republican Lori Robinson said:
“My opponent is trying to fabricate a scandal that does not exist and has repeatedly tried to paint me as a right-wing extremist. … What I can say is I appreciated the opportunity to share my faith and to meet with voters and discuss my solutions for our city’s problems. … [Pastor Smothermon] said ‘I personally would vote for her, but that’s up to you. She will be in the lobby to answer any questions, and you can talk to her and find out if she’s somebody you would like to vote for’ . … Just because it’s a religious institution doesn’t mean they’re second-class citizens that don’t have rights and the opportunity to interact with candidates.”
Robertson made it clear she has not received financial support from Legacy church. However she has likely received “in kind donation” help from Legacy Church with the use of its lobby area.
LEGACY CHURCH IS 501 (c) (3) TAX EXEMPT
Legacy Church is a 501 (c) (3) federal and state tax exempt organization.
To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in the tax code. None of the earnings of a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization may not be a political action organization. Specifically, it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.
Organizations described as 501(c)(3) are commonly referred to as “charitable organizations”. Organizations described as 501(c)(3), are eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions in accordance with the Internal Revenue code. Under Federal Internal Revenue code regarding churches and religious organizations with 501(c)(3) status, these entities “are absolutely prohibited 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.”
The organization must not be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests, and no part of a section 501(c)(3) organization’s net earnings may inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual. If an organization is found to engage in an excess benefit transaction with a person having substantial influence over the organization, an excise tax may be imposed on the person and any organization managers agreeing to the transaction.
Section 501(c)(3) organizations are strictly restricted in how much political and legislative lobbying activities they may conduct. Including endorsing and actively involved with political campaigns.
SMOTHERMON NO STRANGER TO CONTROVERSY AND GOVERNMENT CONTEMPT
Legacy Church and its pastor Steve Smothermon have a lengthy history of attempting to exert influence over Albuquerque city hall and city politics in general. The church has made much appreciated donations to city hall to buy first responders equipment for both firefighters and police. The Church also from time to time retains the services of APD police to work “Chief’s Overtime” for purposes of traffic control at its services.
The good Legacy church does for first responders all too often is offset by the church getting involved with city politics. In 2009, It was common knowledge amongst city hall observers that Smothermon was a staunch supporter of Republican Mayor Ricard Berry when he ran against Democrat Marty Chavez. Berry is a Christian fundamentalist and a photograph published by the Albuquerque Journal of Berry being blessed and prayed over on civic plaza raised more than a few eyebrows.
At the beginning of Berry’s first term in office, Smothermon strenuously objected to Berry hiring as a Mayor’s Office spokesperson a person who did not pass Smothermon’s “moral” litmus test. That person terminated city employment within a few months as a fallout to the pressure exerted by Smothermon on Berry. Smothermon also was known to have a strong dislike for Mayor Berry’s appointed Chief Public Safety Officer at the time.
CHALLENGING THE GOVERNOR’S EMERCGENY HEALTH CARE ORDER AUTHORITY
Last year, Smothermon publicly challenged the validity Governor Lujan Grisham’s COVID-related restrictions on church attendance and mask mandates. Legacy Church was fined $10,000 by the state Department of Health for violating the Governor’s health care orders. During last year’s Christmas services, controversy broke out when video of Legacy Christmas nighttime service revealed that very few people wore masks.
In 2020 on Christmas Eve, there were strict restrictions on occupancy and mask requirements across the state. The pandemic was raging and the state was classified as “red”. Christmas time 2020, churches were allowed to be at 25% capacity in order to deal with the pandemic and to stop the spread of the disease.
Mega churches Legacy Church and Calvary church ignored the mandates and held Christmas Eve services. Both were cited for violating the Governor’s health care orders. The New Mexico Department of Health fined both Legacy Church and Calvary Church $10,000 for violating capacity restrictions and the mask-wearing requirement after photos emerged of Christmas services held in excess church capacity and no masks were worn. The video from Legacy showed hundreds gathered in the church sanctuary area singing, “Silent Night,” with few masks in site.
After being fined in 2020, Legacy Church pastor Steve Smothermon had this to say:
“We have taken the pandemic seriously from the start, and have prudent measures in place. But when governments exceed their constitutional authority and contradict what we are called on by God to do, we answer first to His authority. … We will never pay them a penny. We don’t believe they have the legal authority to fine or tax the church. … “
The truth is Smothermon never took the pandemic seriously. The truth also is the health care orders never prohibited Legacy Church nor its congregation from exercising first amendment rights of religion let alone free speech. During the height of the pandemic last year Legacy church could have taken measures to protect its congregation by holding virtual services, having outdoor services while people attended service in their vehicles, the church could have mandated masks, perhaps even buy masks to distribute to its congregation or even offer and schedule vaccination clinics at the church when vaccinations became available.
STEPPING OVER THE LINE OF COMMON DECENCY
Simply put, Smothermon repeatedly steps over the line of decency intentionally blurring, mixing and stirring his Christian beliefs with free speech and warping his bible preaching with the politics of hate and intolerance. One very good example of Smothermon’s toxic mixture is a 36 minute sermon Smothermon gave entitled “CHRISTIANS: It’s Time To Shout!” that was posted on Youtube and can be seen and heard at this link:
In the sermon, Smothermon makes outrageous claims attacking anyone as being too liberal or too progressive. Smothermon condemns those who are transgender, condemns a woman’s right to choose, says government should not pay for abortions with taxpayer money, condemns the media, defends the rich, does not believe mask are needed, is opposed to vaccines, preaches that only his God, Jesus Christ, is the genuine God and biblical teachings supersedes the law of man. He extolls the virtues of the Texas anti-abortion statute as being the best in the country, if not the world.
A few of the most alarming, divisive and intolerant statements made by Smothermon in his sermon posted on YOUTUBE are worth quoting:
“In today’s world we see the world, the left, the liberals, are so loud with their message its everywhere proclaiming God is not real and we are our own God. It’s been screaming for years and we have gotten use to it. Its message is that you are your own god and you are not accountable to anyone.”
“[To them] it’s about how you feel. Remember feelings [to them] are fact. … You feel like a girl, then you are a girl they say even if you were born a boy. … There is no right and wrong [with them] but it is how you feel at the moment.”
[They say] abortion is a right … . When did abortion become a right that we must pay for it with our tax dollars? You do the act, but out of convenience you say you do not want the baby.”
“I have had parishioners come up to me and say “I think abortion is o.k. [and I say] ok you can leave.”
“They are screaming, yelling loudly to tell you what to believe. Even with this vaccine, and it’s not an immunization. … First they said [if it] was taken, it would fix everything! Now [they say] it won’t keep you from getting it, but it will keep you from the hospital. You see how their message changes? It changes all the time because they don’t know and they continue to inundate us and get us to believe in things that are not real and we sit and start believing it.”
“Can you hear it screaming? If your rich or successful somehow you are evil, your’re evil! Somethings wrong with you. You got too much and you must give it to someone else. … Even Christians start believing this junk. … I do not care, [where the money comes from] it’s not my business.”
“The church has never been prosecuted so much as it has been today.”
“Our stinking media never tell you much. … They never tell you the truth. They bring it up a day then it’s gone. … When it’s the church, it lasts for 3 days.”
“They are screaming, they are indoctrinating you, getting you to believe things that are not true.”
Does anyone believe it was right that 40% of businesses has to close down [under the Governor’s health care orders] never to reopen?”
“If you buy NIKE you are supporting one of the most evil places that support the most anti god stuff. If you go to TARGET, WALMART, SAM’s Auto, they are globalists. They do not even believe in America. … They were all allowed to prosper while [locally owned] businesses were force to close [during the pandemic]. … Smith’s is owned by a bunch of Mormon’s [and stayed open.]
NO COMPLAINT FILED, NO REPONSE FROM IRS
On Wednesday November 24, Jerri Mares, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office said it has not initiated an investigation of Smothermon or Legacy Church and said:
“We have not received a complaint regarding this specific matter. ”
David A. Tucker II, regional spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service, said that “because of privacy regulations, the IRS does not comment or discuss an individual or an organization’s relationship” with the federal agency.
Links to quoted news source material are here:
CITY COUNCIL PARTY MAJORITY AT STAKE
When Pastor Steve Smothermon says to his congregation:
“We need people like .. [Lori Robertson] to make sure this crazy guy they call mayor doesn’t continue to push his agenda” it is clear he knows what is at stake in the December 7 runoff which is Republican control of the City Council.
When referring to Mayor Keller as “this crazy guy”, Smothermon is saying Keller is too progressive and that Smothermon opposes the Mayor’s city hall progressive agenda. Smothermon also knows if there is a Republican takeover of the city council, his influence at city hall will be increased substantially especially if his fellow Christian pastor Dan Lewis becomes President of the city council with a Republican majority which Lewis is already proclaiming will happen.
Robertson has also secured the endorsement of the Republican leaning Albuquerque Police Union. The Police Union has done something it has never been known to do in past elections and that is litter District 7 with signs throughout the district proclaiming police union support for Robertson.
The Republican party is making a serious attempt to secure a majority of 5-4 on the City Council, but that will require winning of the District 7 and District 9 city council races in the runoff. District 7 is currently represented by two term Democrat progressive Diane Gibson who decided not to seek another term. District 9 is currently represented by 4 term conservative Republican Don Harris who also decided not to run for another term.
After the November 2 election, there are 4 Democrats and 3 Republicans on the new city council.
The 4 Democrats are:
District 1 Louis Sanchez (Elected on November 2 defeating Lan Sena.)
District 2 Isaac Benton
District 3 Klarissa Peña (Ran unopposed on November 2 .)
District 6 Pat Davis
The 3 Republicans are:
District 5 Dan Lewis (Newly elected on November 2)
District 4 Brook Bassan
District 8 Trudy Jones
The District 7 race between Republican Lori Robertson and Democrat Tammy Fiebelkorn is viewed as the swing seat to take over the council. District 7 has some of the highest residential burglaries in the city with an increasing homeless problem. Republican insiders feel they have the very best chance of flipping the city council Republican given the platform of Democrat Fiebelkorn. According to one confidential source, Fiebelkorn is placing too big of an emphasis on equal rights, environmental issues and animal rights while ignoring the district’s violet crime rates.
Progressive Democrat Fiebelkorn is campaigning on a platform of “safe streets with more programs to address substance abuse and behavioral health, equal rights and protections for all residents, relief from the COVID pandemic … , transition to a clean energy economy, and City policies that protect and respect all animals.” Fiebelkorn has been endorsed by progressive City Councilor Diane Gibson to replace her. A link to Tammy Fiebelkorn’s November 21 guest column to the Albuquerque Journal entitled “Advocate for safety, equality, clean energy and animals” outlining her campaign platform is here:
Conservative Republican Lori Robertson’s proclaims that the cornerstones of her campaign for city council are “increasing public safety, decreasing homelessness, improving economic development and creating community”. The link to a November 21 guest column entitled “No-nonsense approach to cutting crime, homelessness” outlining her campaign platform is here:
Not as much effort is being given by Republicans in the District 9 City Council race between Democrat Rob Grilley and Republican Renee Grout. Many Republican operatives and insiders believe that their candidate Renee Grout has the advantage thus far, is leading in the early voting over the Democrat Rob Grilley in organization and money. Republicans refer to the history of the district voting for right wing Republicans such as Republican Don Harris for decades. Notwithstanding, confidential sources have said Renee Grout attended Legacy Church after Robertson attended seeking help for her campaign against Grilley. The makeup of District 9 has changed for the last few years, it has become more Democratic which is one of the biggest reason’s Councilor Don Harris decided not to run for a 5th term.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Our freedoms of speech and freedom of religion are two of our most precious rights protected by our United State Constitution. With that said, those freedoms do have limitations and carry with them the responsibility to use them in a responsible manner that does not violate the law. For example, Freedom of Speech does not allow someone to yell fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire, nor does it allow you to threaten to kill someone. Freedom of Religion too has limitations. For example, you cannot make a human sacrifice in praise of your god, even if your human sacrifice agrees to it and wants to be killed and become a martyr. The point is that Freedom of Religion does not mean freedom to violate the law.
WELL SETTLED LAW
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states in full:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The language “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” is known as the “establishment clause” and the “free exercise clause” respectively. In 1802 it was Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third President of the United States who deemed it “separation between Church and State.” The language forms the textual basis for the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the “separation of church and state” doctrine.
Since 1905, the United States Supreme Court has said repeatedly in rulings that it is constitutional in a public health crisis for the government to require people to do certain things or to prohibit certain things that they normally would not do or could do and even refuse to do. In 1905, during the small pox epidemic, the United State Supreme Court case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws and health care orders. Jacobson was a Christian Minister who refused to be vaccinated as required by the government and refused to pay a fine imposed. The United States Supreme Court has heard several challenges to these mandates and public health orders and has consistently ruled the mandates are indeed constitutional based on protecting the public health, safety and welfare.
DISTRICT 7 CANDIDATES
To be clear, Republican candidate Lori Robertson did not violate any Federal Internal Revenue rules nor regulations governing the activities of Legacy Church as 501(c)(3) organization and she should not feel she needs defend herself. It is also a big stretch for Robinson to say the church is being treated like second class citizens when in fact what is being asked is why it is not paying taxes if it wants to be political.
It is also opportunistic political pandering when Tammy Fiebelkorn says “I would never set up a informational table for an election in a church lobby under any circumstances because there is a separation of church and state.” Comments like Fiebelkorn’s have a tendency to come back and haunt politicians as time passes and being called a hypocrite.
FEDERAL TAX LAW
The Federal Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website does address the issue in general terms and the potential consequences of a church or religious organizations with 501(c)(3) status violating the IRS regulation. These entities <em>“are absolutely prohibited 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.” Violating that prohibition “may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” The operative word is “may”.
It is clear from reading the Federal Internal Revenue code, 501(c)(3) charitable organizations cannot endorse candidates if they want to keep their non-profit status and not pay taxes. According to IRS rules and regulations nonprofits are not allowed to endorse candidates verbally or in writing if they want to be tax-exempt. Under the IRS code and regulations, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization lose their nonprofit status, then the IRS can tax them on their donations like any other business.
Simply put churches are nonprofits under the IRS code 501(c)(3), and that means to keep their nonprofit status, they must stay out of endorsing candidates for office and churched must stay out of partisan politics. With that said, many political candidates get around the strict IRS restriction by having priests, pastors, ministers or rabbis stand with them to give “tacit” or implied support to their chosen candidate. Catholic, Baptist, Episcopal and Jewish Clergy usually do not tell a congregation to go vote for a specific candidate knowing full well it could jeopardize their tax exempt status .
Any and all violations of federal tax law rest solely on the shoulders of Pastor Steve Smothermon and it is he who needs to be held accountable for his conduct.
There are likely two separate IRS code violations:
1. Smothermon’s overt solicitation that his congregation support and vote for a candidate he recommends.
2. Allowing a political candidate to use church facilities and set up a campaign table and pass out campaign materials.
With 8 days left before the December 7 election it’s not at all likely any formal actions will be taken against Legacy Church or Smothermon. The big question is if state or federal authorities feel the actions of Smothermon were so egregious as to mandate revoking the church’s 502 (c) (30) tax exemption. It is likely if anything does happen, it will be a fine or warning, as was the case with fines assessed against Legacy Church last year for violation of the Governor’s health care order.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Should there be a Republican takeover of the Albuquerque City Council, you can expect any number of setbacks of progressive programs and policies promoted by Mayor Tim Keller and advocacy of Republican policies and programs. Among those items are:
1. Repeal of the city’s immigration friendly policy that Republicans falsely label as sanctuary city.
2. Opposition to or perhaps repeal of the city’s minimum wage ordinance.
3. Opposition to any mandatory sick leave ordinances for the private sector.
4. Oppose enforcement by Mayor Keller of emergency health care orders for the Corona Virus Pandemic, including opposing any and all-mask mandates and opposing mandatory covid vaccinations of city employees.
5. Reduction in social service programs to help the homeless and the poor, including a scaling back of the Gateway Homeless shelter operations.
6. Advocacy of late term abortion prohibitions as was placed on the 2013 municipal ballot and which failed then.
7. Opposition to the Department of Justice mandated police reforms.
8. Oppose any and all increases in the gross receipts taxes or property taxes to fund city essential services even when deficits occur.
9. Advocate the reduction in the size of city government and eliminate new departments and programs created by Mayor Keller by denying funding for such Departments as the “Office of Equity and Inclusion” that deals with immigrant relations.
10. Advocacy of increased criminal penalties as part of the city’s legislative package and bail bond reform measures.
Should there be a Republican takeover of the city council, Democrats will have only themselves to blame given that District 7 and 9 have Democrat majorities. Democrats lose elections in Albquerque when they fail to vote.
IT’S SMOTHERMON’S CROSS TO BEAR
Smothermon knows better. It is disingenuous that he continues with his political stunts and endorsements. When he says he will not pay the fine, he knows damn well he will just pass it along to his congregation as they clap for him with adoration.
Smothermon thinks he is above man’s law and that he only answers to his own god’s law. He try’s to hide behind the first amendment of the constitution. Smothermon knows full well under the U.S. Constitution and our federal tax laws, his church can engage in free speech and support a candidate all they want, but to do that he knows Legacy church needs to pay taxes and cannot be a nonprofit.
Smothermon and Legacy Church should just pay taxes and stop with the charade that he is not political. Another option is for Smothermon to simply step away from Legacy Church and just run for elective office himself and be a full time politician instead of being a “religious godfather” pulling the strings of those he supports such as Lori Robertson should she be elected.
This whole mess of Smothermon using his sermons for a political agenda falls squarely on the shoulders of Steve Smothermon. It is his cross to bear and not his church’s congregation.
Smothermon needs to “Give unto the State the fine he owes and unto his God sermons that are religious and not political endorsements. ”
Can I have an Amen please!
Below is the link to the December 3, Albquerque Journal Editorial
Editorial: Pastor’s endorsement of candidate merits probe
BY ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL EDITORIAL BOARD
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 3RD, 2021 AT 12:02AM