Watchdog group says State Capitol Bible study leader should register as lobbyist

Former pastor who ministers to state senators, staff says he provides ‘spiritual support’ and ‘lobbies for Jesus’

By: - January 20, 2023 5:45 am
Nebraska State Capitol Building

Carvings on the Nebraska State Capitol include those of religious leaders like Moses and Solomon, points out a former pastor who leads a Bible study of state senators and staff. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Every Wednesday morning during Nebraska legislative sessions, a group of about a dozen state senators gather over breakfast for a Bible study led by a former pastor who used to be a county Republican Party chairman.

Later in the day, over a provided lunch, Arin Hess, the chaplain and president of Capitol Studies, holds a Bible study for legislative staff at the State Capitol or a nearby state building.

But while Hess maintains that he’s merely maintaining a four-decade-long tradition of “serving civil servants with Scripture” at the State Capitol, some watchdogs of the Legislature, along with at least one state senator, contend that what happens at those studies amounts to lobbying and that Hess should register as one.

On Thursday, Common Cause Nebraska called on Hess to “immediately” register as a lobbyist, saying his teachings have led to the introduction of bills. The government watchdog group also said Hess’ work fits the definition of a lobbyist, which is one “who attempts to affect matters before the Nebraska Legislature on behalf of another.”

“While Hess and Capitol Studies are within their rights to advocate for policy related to their faith, lobbyists and their principals should not escape regulation,” said Gavin Geis, the executive director of Common Cause Nebraska.

Arin Hess
Arin Hess, a former pastor in Norfolk, ministers to state senators and State Capitol staffers through a nonprofit called Capitol Studies. (Courtesy of Arin Hess)

Hess, during interviews last fall with the Nebraska Examiner and again on Thursday, said he doesn’t see a reason to register.

‘Lobbying for Jesus’

“About the only thing I can be guilty of is lobbying for Jesus,” said Hess, who is a former minister at Community Bible Church in Norfolk, where he once served as a county GOP chairman.

The call to register comes as concern is rising about the growing influence of “Christian nationalism” on state and federal policies. Christian nationalism is a belief that the United States is a “Christian nation” and for Christians alone.

It has led to concerns about how people with other religious beliefs and atheists are treated, the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community and how it is influencing the introduction of some bills.

For instance, State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, who has praised Hess as “great encouragement” and someone “sent by God,” has introduced a bill the past two years calling for the posting of the national motto, “In God We Trust,” in prominent places in each school building.

Bills promoted by WallBuilders

Such proposals have been among the national initiatives of WallBuilders, a Texas-based group that emphasizes “the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built.”

Two other bills introduced in the past two years, involving medical ethics and the protection of religious rights, appear to be inspired by WallBuilders, according to Geis. The purpose of that group, he said, is clearly to influence legislation.

Hess said that his Bible studies do utilize WallBuilders videos and that he and some state senators attended a recent WallBuilders convention, but he said his group is not affiliated with WallBuilders.

 “They’re just another reference for us,” he said.

Hess said he does not help draft legislation, as WallBuilders does. “That’s not my place.”

Erdman and Glenvil Sen. Dave Murman, another regular attendee at Capital Studies meetings, rejected the idea that Hess was engaged in lobbying and needed to register as one.

Murman said the country would fall apart without a moral code to live by.

“They provide Christian morals and values. I guess if you call that influencing legislation, that’s a good thing,” he said.

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue (Jazari Kual/Nebraska Examiner)

But others have concerns.

Bellevue Sen. Carol Blood said she is uncomfortable with the Bible study group’s use of state facilities for meetings, the use of state email to promote the meetings and the access to legislative offices by Hess during the pandemic.

Would other religious groups, she asked, get the same accommodation?

Patrick O’Donnell, the recently retired Clerk of the Legislature, said he was careful about the appearance of “a religious organization doing business in a public building.”

Because of that, the Bible studies had been held in the Capitol’s cafeteria, which was considered publicly available space because the food service there had been closed.

More recently, after the cafeteria reopened, Capitol Studies has been meeting outside the State Capitol, in a meeting room in a state office building across the street. At other times, Bible studies have been held in a senator’s office. O’Donnell said lawmakers are free to choose what meetings they have in their own offices.

Hess, who served 40 years as a pastor in Norfolk, took over as chaplain and president of Capital Studies in May 2021 after the death of the previous director, Perry Gauthier. It is funded by donations and billed as nondenominational and nonpartisan.

Up to 900 people a day visit the State Capitol, Hess said, and his job is to “serve the officials and their staff members by providing prayer, Bible study and spiritual support in their daily lives.”

An ‘under shepherd’

I’m coming in as an under shepherd for Jesus Christ to pastor for these people,” he said.

The Bible studies focus on topics such as “Christian Ancestry” and “Select Psalms for Civil Servants.”

Hess said if the Bible study topic touches on legislation that is being debated, he will make reference to it, though he feels he is only pointing out what the Gospels say.

“I am not going to change their viewpoint,” he said. Rather, it’s “Let’s look at what the Bible has to say.”

“When the Bible doesn’t speak specifically on an issue, I pray that God will clearly show the path they should take,” Hess added.

He said he doesn’t feel that Capitol Studies gets any preferential treatment because other religious group could set up similar meetings if they chose to.

Geis, of Common Cause, said what is taught at the Bible studies is not the point, it’s that what is taught is influencing senators and leading to legislation, which means that lobbying is occurring.

Kate High, a Common Cause board member from Lincoln, first raised concerns about Capitol Studies.

She said that, on her own behalf, she filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service this fall about the group’s 501(C)(3) status, arguing that Capitol Studies violates the prohibition of excessive lobbying.

High said she thinks Hess needs to register as a lobbyist.

“I do believe that people have a right to their own religious ideas,” High said. “But you just need to touch the bases and follow the rules like everyone else.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.