With a campaign banner supporting the president and voicemail messages promoting Republican causes, a Taneytown church finds itself at an intersection of politics and religion.
The nonprofit Agora Evangelism Ministries has occupied the large colonial structure located on Baltimore Street across from Trevanion Road since 2007. A large sign in front of the white looming property notes the religious organization housed within, reading, “Agora Ministries: Reaching the Marketplace for Jesus.”
But the property also displays an overtly political and partisan message — a billowing flag can be seen hanging from the balcony that reads “Trump 2020.” And the political messages from the church don’t stop there.
Callers to the organization’s official phone number met with a voicemail message with an invitation to a “fantastic cookout” organized by the Tri-District Republican Club of North Carroll County.
An earlier voicemail message on that phone line invited callers to an event where attendees could listen to various speakers discussing how “we can take back the House of Representatives.” Democrats currently hold a majority in the U.S. House, and Republicans hope to flip that majority in November’s election.
The voice speaking on the other line of the message is Donald Frazier, an ordained pastor and the “principal officer” of Agora Evangelism Ministries, according to a listing for the church in the IRS database of tax exempt organizations. Frazier, a former Taneytown City Council member, is also the current treasurer for the Tri-District Republican Club of North Carroll County.
What the law says
Under Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations are eligible for tax-deductible charitable contributions. According to the IRS website, “the law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as one ‘which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.’ ”
This ban on political activity by charities and churches was created by Congress over half a century ago. Organizations that violate constitutional law are subject to losing their tax-exempt status. The IRS administers that and other tax laws, and has enforcement authority over tax-exempt organizations.
Agora Evangelism Ministries Inc. is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization as of tax year 2019 (March 1, 2019, through Feb. 29, 2020), according to the IRS database. Although the IRS listing for Agora does not address its status as of tax year 2020, its status likely still stands. The deadline for tax returns was delayed from March until July this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, so the IRS listing may be out of date.
“In terms of records being available online, it’s a crazy time,” said Matthew Mongiello, professor of political science and international relations at McDaniel College in Westminster. “Records from the IRS don’t pop up immediately in my experience. 2019 is pretty recent.”
When reached for comment, an IRS spokesperson said they could not comment on matters relating to private taxpayers.
Principal officer responds
When asked about the IRS code of conduct for nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations in relation to Agora, Frazier responded by saying that multiple other organizations rent space on the property.
“The Sober Truth Addiction Program and Instant Access Networks have and do also rent space respectively in the building with a lease,” Frazier said in an email. “It belongs to us and it is our residence and parts of it are rented to Agora on a month-to-month basis and other groups and businesses.”
Sober Truth Addiction Program, a Taneytown-based nonprofit concerned with addressing the alcohol and drug issues in Carroll County, is also registered with the IRS for tax-exempt status as of tax year 2019.
Frazier also said in the email that the Republican club also rents space in the same property to conduct executive board meetings.
He said the political signage on the property is his as a property owner and has “no involvement with the ministry.”
Outside the building, where the Trump flag is displayed, the only signage indicating the inhabitants and uses of the building is the sign that designates it as the official headquarters of Agora Evangelism Ministries.
The phone number listed on the headboard for Agora is registered to Frazier and is his personal number. Frazier did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him for follow-up questions about the other organizations that he mentioned, or whether any church space is shared with them.
The Times also attempted to contact the Tri-District Republican Club of North Carroll County, but only Frazier’s number is listed on its website and Facebook page.
A question of enforcement
Mongiello told the Times that Agora Evangelism Ministry does appear to be breaking some rules.
“In my professional opinion, it sounds like they are very much in violation of the IRS code,” he said, “but I would also say that IRS enforcement on political violations for 501(c)(3) organizations overall, but especially religious organizations, is very rare.”
Mongiello said consequences, especially for churches, are typically nonexistent or tolerant when it comes to political expression.
“As I hear the excuses that they’re giving, it does strike me as one of these cases that sounds like they probably are in violation of the law, but probably to the point where there won’t be an enforcement action against them,” he said.
Mongiello used jaywalking as an example of something that is illegal but is never truly enforced unless someone is blatantly disrupting traffic; the same principle, he said, applies to tax laws surrounding religious organizations.
In terms of enforcement when it comes to political expression, according to Mongiello, religious nonprofits are often given a warning — at most — to stop what they’re doing. Further action, such as an investigation or even eventual charges and imprisonment, is extremely rare.
“There’s a capacity issue since there’s an overwhelming number of churches,” Mongiello said. “Do we really want a government official looking over documents in the back of every religious organization and monitoring what they’re doing? That’s probably more of a threat to 1st Amendment religious liberty.”
With regard to Agora’s voicemail messages, Mongiello said there’s gray area in terms of political outreach on behalf of religious organizations.
“Political participation for a particular party or candidate is not allowed, but there are ways that churches and other religious organizations often skirt that line,” he said. “You will often see pastors say ‘God wants you to go out this Tuesday and vote, and to remember your conservative principles,’ that might be code to go out and vote for the conservative candidate, but it’s not the type of thing the IRS wants to get involved in.”
According to Mongiello, as long as a religious nonprofit is not endorsing a specific candidate or interrupting in an election, it is allowed to endorse specific ideas when it comes to speaking about different issues.
For example, a Black Lives Matter sign, which some Carroll churches display, might be seen as political, but it is not a partisan message.
“It’s not a political message in terms of electioneering; the church is even allowed to say things like, ’The government should pass regulation to stop abortions.’ They’re allowed to lobby as long as it’s not the central purpose of the organization,” Mongiello said. “Generally, advocating on issues is not a problem.”
The case of Agora Evangelism Ministries, however, is more extreme considering the fact that the name of the Republican Party is mentioned in the voicemail that is connected to the organization, Mongiello said.
But, according to Mongiello, the mention of taking back the House could fall within that gray area.
Mongiello said he finds it troubling that a Republican club would be operating in a church space, but couldn’t say it’s completely against the rules unless it were to be proven that funds from the club were being channeled into Agora or vice versa.
“There’s a violation of laws and regulations, and then there are violations of laws and regulations that will produce enforcement,” Mongiello said, “and this is probably not the latter and is not something that produces enforcement but seems to go against the spirit of the of the regulations.”