Lt. Gov. Dan Forest will journey into North Carolina’s western mountains this weekend to lead his third annual, invitation-only Christian retreat known as “Black Mountain Weekend.” Forest started the event in 2014, bringing together a couple hundred men at a mountain conference center.
“Many of you share my concerns about the cultural decline of our country, our state and our communities,” Forest states on the Black Mountain Weekend website. “Speakers and presenters will share their real-world experiences and lead the group in discussions on issues that confront our nation, state, and communities — all in a casual and fun environment that will facilitate fellowship and networking — and all from a Biblical worldview.”
Forest, a socially conservative Republican who plans to run for governor in 2020, declined an interview about the weekend. Hal Weatherman, Forest’s chief of staff, wrote in an email that Forest has “never publicized Black Mountain Weekend through traditional media.”
Weatherman provided some information about the retreat, however. “We usually have 200 or so men from around the state attend for a time of Christian fellowship, teaching, prayer and worship,” Weatherman wrote in the email. “It is not a partisan event.”
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Forest is a “professing and practicing Christian,” but not an ordained minister, according to Weatherman.
Black Mountain Weekend is run through a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, religious charity created by Forest in 2014.
Admission is $250 per person. “The attendees pay their own way and we have a great time,” Weatherman said. According to a tax filing, Black Mountain reported $68,745 in revenue and $63,676 in expenses in 2015. The first Black Mountain Weekend two years ago drew men from 66 of the state’s 100 counties, according to online Christian media sources.
Black Mountain Weekend comes two months before a November election in which Forest faces Democrat Linda Coleman in a rematch of a very close 2012 election for lieutenant governor.
According to IRS regulations, 501(c)(3) groups are “absolutely prohibited 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.” Weatherman emphasized that this weekend’s retreat, which is taking place at the Ridgecrest Conference Center, will strictly abide by the IRS rules. No campaign fundraising or any other election-related activity would occur during the weekend, Weatherman said.
The Christian media outlets that publicize the event, such as christianactionleague.org, contain no references to Forest’s campaign or re-election bid. Last year, however, an advertisement for the weekend did creep into online political communications. An event calendar on the Republican Party’s 11th District website features an invitation to the 2015 retreat from Mark Harris, the Charlotte pastor who has run for Congress and helped lead the fight to ban same-sex marriage in North Carolina.
Contacted by email, Harris responded that he had a “phenomenal” time last year and planned to take his two sons to this year’s retreat “to head up to the beautiful location of Black Mountain and enjoy being together with men and Brothers in Christ from all over the state.”
Marcus Owens, a former director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division that regulates charities, said the IRS is less interested that a politician is involved in a charity and more interested in what the charity does.
“It is quite possible that a well-informed, clever lawyer or adviser,” said Owens, now an attorney at the Washington firm Loeb & Loeb, “could thread the needle and come up with a series of events that appear to be for a religious purpose but what they really do is bring people together so people have conversations a political figure wants people to have.”
Longtime N.C. Republican political consultant Carter Wrenn, who campaigned for the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, said he was impressed that Forest had kept it out of the headlines. “I’m in politics up to my hips and I didn't even know it existed,” Wrenn said by phone. “He has done something about his religious beliefs and that is to his credit. When a fellow goes out and does some good work and does not brag about it, that says he is a decent man.”
Anyone interested in visiting with Forest and checking out Black Mountain Weekend for himself is out of luck. This weekend’s event is sold out.