Star-Telegram

Pastors urge voting but stop short of endorsing

- BY LUKE RANKER lranker@star-telegram.com

Fort Worth area pastors are tiptoeing around explicit endorsemen­ts while making it clear to congregant­s which candidates running for local office are fellow church members.

Multiple Tarrant County pastors on Sunday rallied worshipers to vote while listing candidates in the May 1 election. Making an endorsemen­t would jeopardize a church’s nonprofit status under a section of the federal tax code that restricts tax exempt entities from engaging in political action.

At Mercy Culture, an evangelica­l church north of downtown Fort Worth, senior lead pastor Landon Schott was on stage with mayoral candidate Steve Penate and District 9 candidate Erik Richerson. Behind them, a giant red sign read “visit stevep

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COME ON MERCY CULTURE, THE BODY OF CHRIST, WE’RE COMING FOR CITY HALL.

Landon Schott, senior lead pastor at Mercy Culture church

enateforma­yor.com”

Penate, a real estate broker with little political experience, has turned to his Mercy Culture church to rally support, the Star-Telegram noted in March. Penate is a pastor there and his campaign in March sponsored a “night of prayer and worship” that drew at least a couple thousand people to a deserted Toys ‘R’ Us parking lot off South Cherry Lane in west Fort Worth.

The Fort Worth city secretary’s office declared Richerson ineligible on Friday because of a more than 20-year-old felony conviction for robbery, though his name still appears on the ballot. Texas Election Code is vague, but does allow those convicted of crimes to participat­e in elections if their rights have been restored, which Richerson has said is the case.

On stage Sunday, Schott rallied support for Richerson, arguing to worshipers that his removal had less to do with his criminal conviction and more to do with Richerson being a conservati­ve Christian.

“This has nothing to do with politics; he was disqualifi­ed because he says ‘I stand on biblical values,’” Schott said to booming applause.

Later the crowd burst into another round of cheering when Schott said, “We might be having church at City Hall next Sunday” before calling on congregant­s to pray for Penate and Richerson.

“Come on Mercy Culture, the body of Christ, we’re coming for City Hall,” he yelled during the prayer.

Richerson did not return an email sent Tuesday asking if he planned to appeal his eligibilit­y. In a video posted on his Facebook Wednesday morning he said he had proof his rights had been restored and would be delivering the paperwork in the near future.

Schott also did not immediatel­y return a call or Facebook message for comment.

Evangelica­ls have long been instrument­al in backing Republican candidates on the national level. In Texas, white evangelica­ls comprised 24% of the state’s voters in 2018, according to an AP Vote Cast survey. These voters overwhelmi­ngly backed Republican candidates in congressio­nal races, 87% to 12%.

But rallying churchgoer­s is not uncommon or unique to evangelica­ls, TCU political science professor James Riddlesper­ger told the Star-Telegram last month. In local elections, the cheapest and easiest way to gain voters is through networks like churches and workplaces.

“These candidates are going to leverage whatever relationsh­ips they have with communitie­s of faith,” Riddlesper­ger said in March.

In Fort Worth, networking votes can go a long way because voter turnout is typically abysmal. In 2019, less than 9% of registered voters, or about 39,400, cast ballots. A few hundred votes could propel a candidate into the June runoff.

The idea that a small number of votes could push a candidate over the finish line was a clear focal point of First Baptist Grapevine senior pastor Doug Page’s message from the pulpit on Sunday. His church was among a group of Metroplex megachurch­es where leaders promoted members who are running for Tarrant County offices while encouragin­g others to vote.

Gateway Church senior pastor Robert Morris delivered a similar message. Morris was among Fort Worth evangelica­ls, including Gloria and Kenneth Copeland, and Colleyvill­e evangelist James Robison, who advised former President Donald Trump ahead of his 2016 election, according to Star-Telegram archives. Morris also said in 2016 he wanted all of his congregati­on to vote.

Both pastors were direct in not endorsing candidates. But as they spoke, names of people who are running for Southlake, Colleyvill­e and Grapevine council and school board races appeared on screen.

“I’m asking you as your pastor to vote,” Morris told his congregati­on.

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