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Pastor under investigation for campaigning during church services

'The individual who is running against me even came and spoke from my pulpit'

Willard Maxwell
Pastor Willard Maxwell, an independent candidate for the Newport News City Council, gives a sermon at New Beech Grove Baptist Church in Newport News, Virginia, Oct. 9, 2022. |

A Virginia pastor is facing allegations that he used his pulpit to promote his campaign for Newport News City Council, a move that critics contend runs afoul of the law. 

Willard Maxwell serves as pastor of New Beech Grove Baptist Church in Newport News, Virginia. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Maxwell is running as an independent for a seat on the Newport News City Council against fellow independent candidate Curtis Bethany. The candidate’s campaign website reveals that he is seeking Newport News City Council’s North District Seat B. 

Documents obtained by The Christian Post reveal that Maxwell encouraged his congregants to support his campaign during a recent sermon. “We have signs out there if you want to take a sign to your house, that would be great,” he said in the speech.

“Anytime you want to donate $5, $25 — it doesn’t matter, or get other people to donate, I would really appreciate it,” he added. Maxwell acknowledged the concerns that political campaigning from the pulpit constitutes a violation of the law, which prohibits tax-exempt churches from engaging in political campaigning.

Specifically, the Internal Revenue Code prohibits tax-exempt organizations such as churches, religious organizations and charitable organizations “from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” The Internal Revenue Code identifies “contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or opposition to any candidate for public office” as a violation of federal law. 

“I know a lot of people say you can’t use certain things or say stuff at church,” Maxwell added. “Republicans and Democrats alike have been trying to tell me I can’t say nothing. If I can’t say nothing, you can’t say nothing” because “it’s my house.” 

Maxwell’s comments at the pulpit prompted a woman identified as Sharon Richardson to contact Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, the Voter Registrar’s Office and the Daily Press. An Oct. 17 email from Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn to Richardson, obtained by the Daily Press, described the content of the video as “very disturbing.” He assured her that “this matter is under investigation and is being taken very seriously.”

The Christian Post reached out to Maxwell, the attorney’s office and the voter registrar’s office for comment. A response was not received by press time. 

In addition to the comments made during the video, Richardson provided The Christian Post with supporting documentation including a screenshot from an email advertising an Aug. 27 campaign event titled “Leading Ladies for Maxwell.” The email informed recipients that tickets for the event were available in the New Beech Grove Baptist Church office, suggesting a direct link between the pastor’s campaign for public office and the church itself.

Additionally, Richardson included a picture of campaign literature passed out during a church service. Richardson also shared a screenshot of the New Beech Grove Baptist Church website that had a link to Maxwell’s campaign website.

Maxwell denied all allegations of wrongdoing to the Daily Press. He maintained that the link to his campaign website appeared on the church’s website because the group he hired to work on his various websites added a link to the campaign on the church website by accident. The Christian Post confirmed Tuesday that a link to the campaign’s website is not on the church’s website. 

“That hasn’t been there for months,” he assured the publication. Addressing claims that he was improperly using the pulpit to advance his political campaign, Maxwell stressed that “I let Democrats come; I let Republicans come,” recalling that “the individual who is running against me even came and spoke from my pulpit.” Bethany spoke at New Beech Grove Baptist Church’s 11 a.m. service on Oct. 9. 

If found to have violated any portion of the Internal Revenue Code, churches could have their tax-exempt status revoked. While churches can engage in some forms of political speech, including “presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides” or “other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives,” they cannot explicitly endorse candidates.

The situation involving Maxwell and New Beech Grove Baptist Church is not the first time Virginia churches have faced scrutiny for dabbling in electoral politics. Last year, ahead of the Virginia gubernatorial election, the secular group Americans United for Separation of Church and State raised concerns about a campaign ad slated for viewing at more than 300 predominantly African American churches featuring Vice President Kamala Harris urging congregants to support Democrat Terry McAuliffe. 

This year, the elections for the North District Seat B and other seats on the Newport City Council will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 8. The winners will go on to serve four-year terms. 

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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