Church-and-state lines blur in MID campaign

Senior Pastor Glen Berteau welcomes law enforcement to the stage during the Unity Matters celebration for first responders at The House Modesto Church in Modesto, California, on Monday, March 13, 2017.
Senior Pastor Glen Berteau welcomes law enforcement to the stage during the Unity Matters celebration for first responders at The House Modesto Church in Modesto, California, on Monday, March 13, 2017.

Questions about free speech, religious liberty and separation of church and state are playing out in a race for a seat on the Modesto Irrigation District Board.

Candidate Stu Gilman, challenging incumbent Jake Wenger on the Nov. 7 ballot, campaigned during an Oct. 1 sermon at The House, a large Modesto church that Gilman has attended for 13 years and serves as a church board member. Senior pastor Glen Berteau embraced Gilman’s six-minute message, encouraged people to visit a campaign table Gilman set up in the church, and told his congregation that pulpit politicking is appropriate because “we care for the people in our city,” not just those at church.

For more than 60 years, such talk might have landed a house of worship, or any nonprofit, in trouble with the IRS. Most avoided open endorsements of candidates for fear of losing tax-exempt status.

But the landscape is changing.

The Free Speech Fairness Act, introduced in Congress early this year, would erase such restrictions. Not waiting for Congress to take action, Pres. Trump in May signed an executive order aimed at accomplishing the same thing.

Conservative Christian groups applaud both, saying religious leaders ought to enjoy freedom of speech, including political discussion.

“As a pastor, you should be free to teach as God leads, without interference from the government,” reads an Alliance Defending Freedom letter urging support for the legislation. First Amendment free-speech rights should not be “bargaining chips to be exchanged for a tax status,” the notice says.

Secularists, on the other hand, bristle at the blurring of a line between church and state. Churches, synagogues and other religious venues already escape paying an estimated $100 billion a year in taxes and should not enjoy favoritism not extended to other nonprofits, they say.

Trump’s executive order, signed on May 4, the National Day of Prayer, is “creating a huge amount of mischief,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. That group has sued to block the executive order.

Berteau said he was not emboldened by Trump’s order, but gave Gilman a spotlight because “it’s what I’ve done for 20-something years.” Gilman and Wenger are vying for an MID seat representing northwest Modesto, Salida and Wood Colony.

“Stu is running for something he believes in,” Berteau said. “I’ve known him for years, he’s involved in our church, he asked and I said, ‘Yeah, come up and share with the people’.”

Several Modesto churches over the years have invited candidates on many levels to address congregants. Typically they are given a few minutes to introduce themselves and ask for support, sometimes alongside opponents.

The Rev. Joseph Illo drew national attention in 2008 with a letter to parishioners of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, saying they might need to go to confession if they voted for a candidate like Barack Obama supporting abortion rights.

Berteau has acknowledged to congregants – the House has more than 8,000, its website says – that he doesn’t back away from controversy, and has joked in sermons about running for president of the United States.

A Facebook video of Berteau’s August “stupid white people” sermonette in reaction to a white nationalist rally that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va., has drawn more than 71/2 million viewers. “Bunch of stupid white folks. What’s wrong with ’em? Using our Bible to hate people is wrong,” said Berteau, who is white.

On Oct. 1, Gilman told those attending The House he wants to return to MID customers some of the $93 million annual profit received from selling electricity. That’s an astonishing campaign pledge not mentioned in previous interviews with The Modesto Bee or during a debate in front of Bee editors lasting more than an hour.

“Would that get an amen?” Gilman said to enthusiastic applause at The House, at Coffee Road and Briggsmore Avenue.

He thanked Berteau for his “promotion,” and the pastor asked Gilman to notify him as other MID seats come up for election, “so we can vote and get a right guy in there.”

In a subsequent interview, Gilman said he would explore creating a profit-sharing pool that would reward MID’s electricity customers, whether residents or businesses, with rebates or credits on a future bill.

The price of electricity is an important campaign issue.

Gilman’s sample ballot candidate statement questions whether MID has “forgotten that families, widows and retirees pay huge electrical bills” to lavish high pay on the utility’s employees; the average private sector wage is $39,969 compared to MID’s $91,105 2016 average, The Bee has reported. “MID doesn’t worry about these costs because ratepayers bail them out,” Gilman’s statement says.

Wenger reminds voters that the board has not raised electricity rates in his four years in office. Yet MID has managed to reduce debt $250 million and add $20 million to reserves in that time, his candidate statement notes. His campaign signs portray Wenger this way: “Ratepayer. Farmer. Leader.”

Wenger said he has not addressed a church. “When it comes to my campaign, I like to stick to the issues, the facts and my record. Whatever my opponent does is what he decides to do,” he said.

Trump’s executive order and the Free Speech Fairness Act seek to overturn the Johnson Amendment, named in 1954 for then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson nine years before he became president. The amendment prevents nonprofit organizations from supporting political candidates.

While campaigning last year, Trump – who got significant support from conservative Christians – promised to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” and he has told evangelical groups since that his executive order accomplished that goal. Although only Congress can repeal the Johnson Amendment, Trump’s order instructs the IRS not to go after churches engaging in politics.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390