(Photo: Reuters/John Adkisson)
Mark Harris, pastor of a North Carolina megachurch who is seeking the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat, has come under scrutiny for accepting church offerings during his campaign.
Harris is currently on leave from First Baptist Church in Charlotte to focus on his campaign win the state's May 6 primary election. However, he has made several recent church appearances as an invited preacher where he has accepted money that could be a violation of campaign finance laws.
"I would hope the pastor would make it very clear that we're taking up a love offering for Mark Harris the pastor, not for the campaign," Harris said, according to North Carolina-based WRAL-TV. "Some of these guys are very aware that I'm on a personal leave of absence without pay, and I have no income. So, should the church take up a love offering, that would be no different from them taking up a love offering when I was preaching revival there or preaching any other meeting."
As a candidate, Harris is required to report all campaign donations, regardless of how much they are. However, a WRAL-TV review of Harris' recent campaign finances show that he has not reported any of the church offerings as donations.
"Some churches haven't given me anything, quite frankly … often time, to be honest with you, a love offering doesn't even cover my mileage," said Harris.
Back in January, Harris attended Blackwelder Park Baptist Church in Kannapolis, N.C. where pastor Bill Saylor endorsed Harris for office while encouraging his congregation to vote for him as well.
"… We're going to take an offering for Dr. Harris, for his coming and preaching, also for whatever you want to do otherwise for supporting him in this campaign," said Saylor, as shown in a video posted by the church. "I hope you will think about it. He has some materials in his car. If you would like to get more materials and pass them out and thereby get better known in this area, and then when the primaries come, you and all of your friends can vote for him. Amen?"
According to the Internal Revenue Service, churches, which are considered 501(c)(3) organizations, are prohibited from directly advocating for the election of one particular candidate. Otherwise, their tax-exempt status could be threatened.
"If it's in the context of referencing him as a candidate, that seems problematic," said Bob Phillips, director of Common Cause of North Carolina, an organization dedicated to transparency in election fundraising and spending, reports WRAL-TV.
However, Harris claims that his intention in preaching at several churches is not to gain votes.
"I would be concerned about politicking in the pulpit too, but that's not what we do," Harris said.
Harris is among the top three candidates in a race of eight for the GOP nomination next week. The winner will face Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, whose seat is critical for Republicans that want to win back the Senate.