Kansas House candidate’s financial link to Pittsburg church raises legal question

GOP candidate paid nearly $4,700 to Catholic church for postage costs of campaign mailers

Kansas House candidate Charles Smith's campaign finance report includes payment of nearly $5,000 to a Catholic church in Pittsburg for postage costs of campaign mailers, a collaboration that may not be against state law but could run afoul of Internal Revenue Service rules for nonprofit churches. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas House candidate Charles Smith's campaign finance report includes payment of nearly $5,000 to a Catholic church in Pittsburg for postage costs of campaign mailers, a collaboration that may not be against state law but could run afoul of Internal Revenue Service rules for nonprofit churches. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Republican Kansas House candidate Charles Smith raised eyebrows Friday by including in a campaign-finance report payment of more than $4,700 to a Catholic church in Pittsburg for postage costs of distributing campaign mailers to potential voters.

Smith, a former state legislator attempting to reclaim his House seat, was a high school football coach and a math teacher at St. Mary’s Colgan in Pittsburg and attends Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church located across the street from the campus. He is attempting to defeat state Rep. Monica Murnan, a Democrat, in the Tuesday election.

The payment for postage by Smith to Our Lady of Lourdes could be allowed under Kansas law if properly categorized by Smith as a legitimate campaign purchase from a business, a state official said. In this case, acquiring postage services through Our Lady of Lourdes could be comparable under state statute to a candidate’s decision to buy yard signs or bumper stickers from a printing company.

“On the finance report, it appears to be a purchase from a business,” said Mark Skoglund, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.

However, the relationship between the Smith campaign and Our Lady of Lourdes could be problematic for the church under Internal Revenue Service provisions guiding political activity of nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit churches are allowed to assist with distribution of educational materials, but cannot endorse or favor a particular candidate or political party. There is no evidence the church offered the same business-related services to Murnan or any other candidate.

Deborah Miller, a certified church administrator with Church Administrative Professionals, has advised religious organizations about boundaries for tax-exempt 501(d)(3) organizations. She said a church cannot under the federal tax code invite a political candidate to use a church’s duplicator equipment, postage meter or other assets to produce or distribute campaign materials.

On Friday, Smith said he wasn’t available to discuss his campaign finance report. A representative of Our Lady of Lourdes didn’t respond to request for comment.

“Keeping focused on running my positive race,” Murnan said when asked about Smith’s reliance on the church for campaign postage services.

Smith’s campaign report on contributions and expenditures showed that on Oct. 21 he paid out $4,042.50 to Our Lady of Lourdes for “postage for mailers.” On Oct. 5, his campaign paid the church $700 for mailing campaign handbills.

Smith’s campaign has emphasized his support for a state constitutional amendment declaring Kansans don’t have a right to the medical procedure. In an attempt to rebuke the Kansas Supreme Court, the 2020 Kansas Legislature attempted to place the amendment on statewide ballots. The Senate approved the measure by the required two-thirds majority, but it failed in the House with Murnan opposed.

A two-page letter sent to potential voters in southeast Kansas with a return address of “OLL Pro-Life” was signed by about 40 people. Our Lady of Lourdes church is commonly referred to on social media and elsewhere as OLL.

There doesn’t appear to be a formal organization or political action committee established in Kansas under the label OLL Pro-Life. The return address could have been used to signal to recipients the message was tied to the Pittsburg church or people affiliated with the church.

The letter endorsed Smith while denouncing his Democratic opponent and praising a pair of Republican legislative candidates. Signers of the correspondence recommended voters support President Donald Trump rather than Democrat Joe Biden, U.S. Senate nominee Roger Marshall instead of Democrat Barbara Bollier and U.S. House candidate Jake LaTurner as opposed to Democrat Michelle De La Isla.

“With Jake we will have a congressman who lives our values,” the letter said. “Our own coach Chuck Smith is running for state House of Representatives. How can any Catholic in good conscience vote for Barbara Bollier or for Monica Murnan?”

Chuck Weber, who works for the Kansas Catholic Conference, said the state organization advised churches to adhere to state and federal laws and to protect nonprofit status by focusing on assisting people with attaining a “properly formed conscience.” Political candidates aren’t granted access to the conference’s office equipment to put out partisan messaging, he said.

“We don’t endorse,” Weber said. “We follow IRS guidelines and we encourage churches to do that.”