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    Lake Wales mayor uses church to pursue political influence


    Endorsements in church draw ire of some residents

    Jack Hilligoss, senior pastor at HighPoint Church in Lake Wales, stood onstage on a recent Sunday morning, telling congregants that if they were not already registered to vote, they could “get right with God” and sign up after the service.

    Directing church members to a registration table, Hilligoss said they would find Lake Wales City Commissioner Danny Krueger, “who is a member of HighPoint Church and has been a fantastic commissioner here for Lake Wales, and he needs your support. In fact, when you go to vote, just think of this: Danny and Danny. OK? That’s all I’m going to say.”

    That was a reference to the April 2 election, in which Krueger and fellow City Commissioner Daniel Williams face challengers. Hilligoss also serves as mayor of Lake Wales, and the pulpit exhortation to his flock symbolized what some residents consider his troubling tendency to blur the lines between religion and politics.

    Hilligoss, 58, exemplifies a recent national movement of evangelical Christian pastors seeking more societal influence by running for elected office. Having received training from a national organization, he gained election as Lake Wales mayor in 2022, following his appointment to an opening on the City Commission a year earlier.

    The pastor-turned-mayor ended a city tradition of offering proclamations for LGBTQ Pride month and has appointed members of his church to city boards. Looking beyond Lake Wales, Hilligoss has launched an initiative aimed at helping conservative evangelical Christians gain majorities on all municipal commissions in Polk County.

    Hilligoss’ willingness to blend his evangelical fervor with governmental aspirations has provoked a backlash among some Lake Wales residents.

    “That is not your job,” Juanita Zwaryczuk said during public comments at a recent commission meeting. “It’s not your job to do it here, and it’s not your job to do it at your church, either. Maybe all you out there (in the audience) come because you think it’s church, but I don’t, and a lot of people don’t. We are not your parishioners. You are not our pastor. You are our mayor, and sometimes I think that you forget that.”

    On another recent Sunday morning, Hilligoss stood on his church’s stage and decried an article in a Lake Wales publication critical of a business incubator funded by the city (and run by a volunteer pastor at the church). HIlligoss, speaking sternly, said he felt an obligation to address “wickedness.” He decried “a local group of people who are consistent agitators” and who “don’t believe that Christians have a place in politics — or, at the very least, you’re supposed to park your convictions at the door.”

    Mentioning the Democratic Club of Lake Wales, Hilligoss asserted that Krueger and Williams had been victims of “coordinated attacks” and reminded his congregation that a city election was approaching.

    The clear implication was that Democrats are on the wrong side and that Krueger and Williams deserve the support of church members, a point Hilligoss made more plainly on a subsequent Sunday.

    At the City Commission meeting on Feb. 20, Zwaryczuk, a member of the Democratic Club of Lake Wales, said she had considered wearing a large, red “W” for “wicked” — an allusion to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” — to signify her status as one of the “agitators.” Addressing Hilligoss, she charged that he had “defamed” the political club.

    Another club member, Charlene Bennett, announced that she planned to file a complaint with the IRS over what she considered Hilligoss’ violation of rules against political activity by tax-exempt organizations.

    “I am absolutely frightened of theocracy and white Christian nationalism,” Bennett said.

    Hilligoss has expressed political ambitions that spread well beyond Lake Wales. In a 2023 speech to Liberty Pastors, a group that trains ministers to enter politics, he discussed “Project 17.” Its goal is “to take over a Christian majority in every city commission in the 17 municipalities in Polk County,” he said.

    Describing the project, Hilligoss said that voter participation in city elections is often under 10%, with races sometimes decided by 100 or fewer votes. That means that one church focused on two precincts could swing an election, he said.

    “We started to reach out to pastors in every one of our municipalities,” Hilligoss said. “We’ve offered to meet with them and say, ‘We can show you a strategy to win elections.’”

    The initiative apparently produced two candidates last year in the Winter Haven City Commission election — Johnathan Bush, a Baptist pastor, and Kim Davis — who emphasized national political issues and spoke against “woke” ideology in their campaigns.

    Both of them lost their races. Clifton Dollison, himself a pastor, decisively beat Bush in a runoff election, and incumbent Tracy Mercer narrowly defeated Davis.

    Training for politics

    Hilligoss, who did not respond to voicemails seeking an interview, described the motivation for his entry into politics at a 2023 gathering of Liberty Pastors. The nonprofit, which says it has trained about 1,500 evangelical preachers since 2016, is affiliated with Turning Point USA, Liberty Counsel and ACT for America, an advocacy group that opposes what it calls “the threat of radical Islam” to Americans.

    Liberty Pastors warns against a “Marxist” movement in the country led by Black Lives Matter. In a video pitch to other ministers posted by Liberty Pastors, Hilligoss stood before a superimposed image of the organization’s logo: an oval showing a Christian cross against a field of an American flag with 13 stars, typifying the Christian nationalism philosophy of blending religious and patriotic symbols.

    Hilligoss also explained his political ideas in a front-page article published in June 2022 in The Epoch Times, a national publication with a conservative orientation.

    Speaking at the Liberty Pastors Training Camp in Lynchburg, Virginia, Hilligoss said he had avoided political engagement before March 2020, when he heard a news report that then-President Donald Trump planned what the pastor called a 15-day shutdown to combat the spread of the newly emergent COVID-19 virus.

    Hilligoss also mentioned his concern about demonstrations that followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman in May 2020. 

    “And the national chaos began to bleed into my small town,” Hilligoss said. “Outside groups began to agitate against our police force. They actually organized protests around our police station. They were showing up at commission meetings, demanding that we fire our chief.”

    Hilligoss inveighed against “woke crazies” and lamented that the Jesus of the gospels had been replaced by “a progressive Jesus.” He said that an outside patron had worked to sneak curriculum promoting Critical Race Theory into Lake Wales schools.

    Referring to the 2020 elections as “rigged,” Hilligoss recalled hearing from a friend, Steve Maxwell, who was creating County Citizens Defending Freedom, a conservative group that has since expanded throughout Florida and into other states. Hilligoss joined the board of the group, which opposed mask requirements in schools during the pandemic and has led numerous challenges to books in school libraries.

    Maxwell, who did not respond to an interview request, sent Hilligoss to a meeting of the American Renewal Project, a group formed by David Lane that recruits evangelical pastors to run for office.

    At first, Hilligoss said, he wanted no part of politics. But he reconsidered after watching videos of Paul Blair, the Orlando-based leader of Liberty Pastors, and watching Florida Rep. Webster Barnaby, R-Deltona, a pastor, speak at an event in Sebring.

    On the drive home, Hilligoss said, he heard the voice of God telling him, “You’re going to run for mayor of Lake Wales.” He soon attended his first Liberty Pastors event in Little Rock, Arkansas.

    “If we’re truly genuine Christians, we should be trying to influence every level of our society, education, economics, business, government, everything,” Hilligoss told The Epoch Times. “And the Bible gives us guidelines on how to do that. Liberty Pastors was a big part of helping me come to that understanding.”

    Hilligoss approvingly cited Liberty Pastors’ admonition that Christians should remove their children from public schools.

    Lake Wales city commissioners appointed Hilligoss in 2021 to a vacancy created by the suspension of Kris Fitzgerald after her arrest on a felony charge. (Fitzgerald was later acquitted, but her reinstatement by Gov. Ron DeSantis was nullified because she had moved from the city.)

    In 2022, Hilligoss gained election as mayor, capturing 43.8% of the vote in a three-way race, as 1,126 voters chose him.

    In his Liberty Pastors address, Hilligoss said his church had long opposed the issuing of proclamations for LGBTQ Pride month each June and the inclusion of a Pride float in city parades. Six weeks after his election, Hilligoss proudly told his fellow ministers, he blocked the reading of a Pride proclamation at a City Commission meeting, an action that provoked emotional complaints from some residents and praise from others.

    In an interview with Blair, Hilligoss seemed to take credit for influencing other local cities, the Polk County Commission and the Polk County School District to halt issuing LGBTQ Pride proclamations or cease all proclamations.

    The Epoch Times story quoted Hilligoss as saying, “I say, as a very conservative, convinced and enthusiastic Christian, that even my faith shouldn’t dominate the (City Commission) chamber.”

    But he told Liberty Pastors: “We have 125 seats in our commission chamber. I counted them, because I try and fill them all now with friendly people every month.”

    Hilligoss also talked happily about blocking a “very liberal” elected official, whom he did not name, from speaking at a City Commission meeting during the debate over the Pride proclamation, citing commission rules that only allowed Lake Wales residents to speak. The Ledger confirmed that the intended speaker was an aide to Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, whose district then included Lake Wales.

    “That was a lot of fun,” Hilligoss said of telling the man he could not speak.

    Lake Wales later revised its policy, allowing non-residents to speak during public comments.

    In his speech at the Liberty Pastors meeting, Hilligoss boasted of filling 13 seats on Lake Wales citizens boards, “all with local church members, most of them from HighPoint.” The mayor appoints board members with approval from the City Commission. City records indicate that 27 board members have been appointed since Hilligoss became mayor in 2022.

    Zwaryczuk, who does not attend HighPoint Church, said she applied for a position on the Planning and Zoning Board but was not appointed, though she holds a master’s degree and is co-president of the Lake Wales American Association of University Women. All the other applicants gained appointments or were named alternates, she said.

    “The slight doesn’t bother me, but it proves a point,” she said. “He’s selecting specific kinds of people. And I know that you would want to appoint people that you can get along with, but it shouldn’t be because of their religion.”

    Lake Wales city manager rescinds planned firing of police chief Chris Velasquez

    Like most local cities, Lake Wales offers an invocation before all City Commission meetings. In an interview with Blair of Liberty Pastors, Hilligoss disapprovingly mentioned that a transgender atheist had been allowed to give the invocation at a meeting before he became mayor.

    Records show that every invocation since Hilligoss’ election has been presented by a Protestant Christian pastor, with Walter Nelson of Impact Church, an Assemblies of God congregation, delivering seven of them. Commissioner Williams has given four invocations and Commissioner Keith Thompson two.

    Zwaryczuk, a former Catholic who calls herself agnostic, said she applied to present an invocation but was denied.

    “With these invocations at the beginning of meetings, he’s trying to take over,” Zwaryczuk said. “He’s trying to make his church take over. It’s like Christian nationalism. And it’s scary because we have a lot of Christians here of all different types.”

    At a commission meeting in February, Catherine Price, a frequent critic of the board, told Hilligoss: “Sometimes it feels like this particular city commission is being run by your church and the people who go there.”

    Bennett, Zwaryczuk and other speakers criticized Hilligoss at the March 5 meeting for his recent statements in church services.

    Hilligoss responded in his mayor’s comments at the end of the meeting.

    “I would only, I guess, point out that churches being engaged in politics has a long history in our country on both sides of the aisle, Democrat (and) Republican,” he said. “So I’m very proud of all of the Christians in this city who have chosen to be involved, and when they do run, we try and help them win. You may as well win if you’re going to run. And at that, I think I’ll just let it go. If anybody wonders about, you know, when religion comes up in this chamber, they just have to watch the last two years of comments, and they’ll see.”

    Promoting candidates in church

    HighPoint Church originated as Burns Avenue Church of God in 1973. Hilligoss has served as pastor since 1997.

    Starting in 2008, Hilligoss followed a conviction that the church “needed to bring the influence of the Kingdom to every part of the culture in which it was located,” according to a history on the church’s website. He created a “cultural mandate” strategy and began developing the Providence Center for Citizenship, “a ministry that teaches believers government from a biblical worldview and equips them to be involved in local politics.”

    HighPoint Church, which opened a private school last year, plans to operate a business incubator and a media and publishing group, its website says.

    The Johnson Amendment, a provision in the U.S. tax code adopted in 1954, prohibits nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. The measure applies to churches.

    During services at HighPoint, Hilligoss regularly tells the congregation that as Christians they are compelled to vote and engage with political issues. He often speaks in general terms about social and political issues, and on more than one occasion he has offered either implied or explicit candidate endorsements.

    In 2022, a church member, Justin Sharpless, was one of four candidates in nonpartisan Polk County School Board races promoted by the local Republican Party. During a service that year, Hilligoss reminded parishioners about Sharpless’ candidacy.

    “You need to pray for him, and you need to vote for him,” Hilligoss said.

    Sharpless won the election in District 6, narrowly beating Sara Jones. The article in The Epoch Times credited Hilligoss with getting a School Board member elected. (Sharpless did not return a phone call from The Ledger.)

    In his talk at the Liberty Pastors camp, Hilligoss shared his realization that city elections could be decided by 100 or fewer votes. He said he adopted a strategy for the 2023 City Commission election, when two seats were up for grabs.

    “We put that strategy in place,” he said. “Our folks put the strategy together. We went out and recruited Christian conservative candidates to run for the two city council seats. Both of them won.”

    Hilligoss apparently referred to Krueger, elected in 2022, and Thompson, elected last year. Williams is a pastor at a different church.

    “Now we have four of five commission seats that are in the hands of good Christian people,” Hilligoss said, clearly excluding longtime City Commissioner Robin Gibson.

    Told of the comment, Gibson said that he and his wife, Jean, grew up as Presbyterians and raised their children, now grown, in First Presbyterian Church of Lake Wales. Since becoming a commissioner, he said, he has periodically visited different churches in the city, including HighPoint Church.

    In recent years, HighPoint Church has brought in local candidates to meet with congregants at Sunday services. All of the invited candidates appear to have been Republicans — or conservatives running in nonpartisan races — such as School Board candidate Jill Sessions, U.S. House candidate Jennifer Raybon and Polk County Judge candidate John Flynn in 2022.

    Krueger, a retiree from Wisconsin, is facing a re-election challenge April 2 from Carol Gillespie. Lake Wales residents shared photos taken in early March that showed a small campaign sign for Krueger planted on the church property along North Scenic Highway.

    Since Hilligoss became involved with Liberty Pastors, his church has created a weekly meeting group, Salt and Light, that seeks “to mobilize Christians at the grassroots level” so that they can influence government and civic affairs. Local candidates have spoken to the group.

    In an interview with Blair, Hilligoss said the church inaugurated weekly meetings of Patriot Academy, which regularly draws more than 100 members to “strategize” about political issues. Hilligoss said that he also encourages church members to get involved with Citizens Defending Freedom.

    Bennett, who confirmed that she filed a complaint about Hilligoss’ church with the IRS, said she has low expectations that the federal agency will take any action. Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative group, has encouraged pastors since 2008 to defy the law and speak explicitly about politics in church. Through 2017, only one church had been audited, and none had been punished, the Washington Post reported.

    Hilligoss has many defenders

    The criticisms from Bennett and others at the March 5 City Commission meeting prompted a conspicuous response during public comments at Tuesday’s meeting, as Citizens Defending Freedom sent out an urgent request for members to attend. (The firing of Police Chief Chris Velasquez by City Manager James Slaton, since rescinded, also drove up attendance.)

    Several speakers defended Hilligoss and said that Christian values should infuse government bodies. A man seated in the first row and wearing a “Let’s Go Brandon” T-shirt held a poster that read, “Lake Wales Belongs To Jesus Christ.”

    Jim Abney, a member of HighPoint Church, thanked Hilligoss for his service as mayor and said he had been “personally attacked for your Christian values.”

    Bud Colburn, a Lake Wales resident, said that some citizens have a misconception that the U.S. Constitution established a separation between church and government. He said that the Establishment Clause protects religion from government and not the reverse.

    “There have been numerous, vicious, personal attacks against commissioners and the mayor, who serve this city in numerous ways — yes, to include as pastors of churches,” Colburn said. “Some of those making these personal attacks watch streaming video of sermons, hoping to catch the pastors in a statement that could be used as a trap. That was also tried 2,000 years ago, to no effect.”

    A few speakers read from affirmations of Christian faith that some of the original states required of office holders in the 1700s.

    “I am here to declare that God belongs in our government and that God is the ruler of America and of Lake Wales, Florida,” said Glynnda White, an officer with the Winter Haven 9-12 Project. “There are certain people who attend Lake Wales City Commission meetings for one purpose, it seems — to complain about sitting city commissioners who happen also to be Christians, pastors and leaders in the Christian faith. It seems that in the eyes of these people, Christians don’t have the same right to serve an elected office as do God-rejecters.”

    At Hilligoss’ suggestion, the commission extended public comments another 15 minutes beyond the usual limit of 45. The final speaker, Richard McKinley, a Lake Wales resident for 66 years, urged an inclusive approach to governing.

    McKinley said that Hilligoss’ description of those raising questions about city government as engaging in “wickedness” while in his pastor’s role was “not conducive to unity.”

    “We’ve got multiple (Christian) denominations in this community,” McKinley said. “We’ve got Muslims in this community. We’ve got Jewish people in this community. We’ve got agnostics and atheists, all of which, under our Constitution, have a right to participate in city government and have a right to be heard — and they have a right to feel that they have a right to be heard and that they will be heard. And what I’m hearing is that our community is not so sure that that’s true.”

    Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on X @garywhite13.

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