HOUSTON, Texas – Politically active Texas churches are able to lead recall efforts of public officeholders and pool resources to form super PACs, according to a recent U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmation of the rights to do so. The decision erases any doubt that a new frontier in how institutions of faith can participate in campaigns and elections has opened.
Three evangelical congregations from San Antonio and Houston raised concerns in federal court that the Texas Ethics Commission’s (TEC) enforcement of various portions of the Texas Election Code prohibited them from circulating recall petitions, coordinating with other congregations, promoting efforts from the pulpit and other activities. Of specific concern was the churches’ reading of Texas Election Code Section 253.094(b) which states, “A corporation or labor organization may not make a political contribution in connection with a recall election, including the circulation and submission of a petition to call an election.” The TEC argued successfully before the district and appellate courts that it does not enforce the section to prohibit the churches or any other corporation from making “political contributions” to “direct-campaign-expenditure-only political committees,” otherwise known as super PACs.
A primary cause of confusion among the churches was a 2012 Texas Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that cancelled a recall election triggered by congregations concerning El Paso Mayor John Cook and City Representatives Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega. The court concluded that Texas election law had been violated due to church involvement in the effort. Plaintiffs’ attorneys claimed the ruling caused a “chilling effect” prior to bringing the federal suit, according to The San Antonio Express-News.
San Antonio-based Faith Outreach Center International, and Houston-based Joint Heirs Fellowship Church and First Church of God, originally promised recall efforts against former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the full San Antonio City Council and Houston Mayor Annise Parker in 2013 over gay nondiscrimination ordinances pushed by local officials. During the lawsuit, Mayor Castro was named U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Mayor Parker faces term limits this year. Houston’s nondiscrimination ordinance would later fail by a margin of 62 percent during a municipal election, as Breitbart Texas’ Lana Shadwick reported.
Jonathan Boos, a Republican candidate for Texas House District 113 reacted to the ruling in a statement offered to Breitbart Texas.
In light of recent efforts led in part by congregations of faith to overturn Houston’s HERO ordinance and the backlash against the pastors of these congregations by City of Houston officials, affirmation of the ability to exercise these rights without fear of running afoul of the Texas Ethics Commission is particularly important.
Religious congregations have enjoyed a lengthy, yet narrow history of participating in the electoral process. Organized voter registration efforts are a mainstay among minority churches. Early voting activities are regularly promoted in states to better facilitate the “Souls to the Polls” get-out-the-vote movement. The Fifth Circuit’s affirmation of the ability to engage in ad buys and other tactics via super PACs offers brand new opportunities for faith communities to affect change.
Considered the most conservative among federal appeals courts, the Fifth Circuit recently reversed a ruling holding Texas’ photo voter identification law intentionally discriminatory, instructing Texas and ID opponents to correct the requirement, avoiding potential disparate impacts among minority communities.