FFRF made a huge splash in national news in early January when it insisted that the IRS take action regarding a pro-Trump rally hosted by a megachurch in Miami on Jan. 3.
The leader, pastor and self-proclaimed “apostle” of the Ministerio Internacional El Rey Jesús (King Jesus Ministry), Guillermo Maldonado, had urged his congregation to attend this political rally. According to reporting by the Tampa Bay Times, Maldonado told congregants: “Don’t put your race or your nationality over being a Christian. Be mature . . . If you want to come, do it for your pastor. That’s a way of supporting me.”
FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert wrote to Acting Director of Exempt Organizations Examinations Mary A. Epps, urging the IRS to promptly investigate King Jesus Ministry. FFRF called his actions a clear violation of IRS regulations prohibiting 501(c)(3) organizations from participating in a political campaign.
Dozens of news outlets covered the controversy, including CBS, Fox News, Reuters, The New York Times and Newsweek.
The IRS provision, known as the Johnson Amendment, specifies that 501(c)(3) organizations, which include churches and other religious organizations, are prohibited from “participating in or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” While leaders of churches or religious organizations may express their opinions on political matters as individuals, they are, according to this rule, precluded from making “partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.”
At the rally, Trump was prayed over by various evangelists, including Paula White, advisor to the president’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative.
Among Trump’s remarks to the cheering crowd of 5,000: “I really do believe we have God on our side. I believe that, I believe that . . . Evangelical Christians of every denomination and believers of every faith have never had a greater champion, then you have right now. We’ve done things that nobody thought was possible. Together we’re not only defending our constitutional rights. We’re also defending religion itself, which is under siege.”
Trump used the occasion to announce that Attorney General William Barr will soon announce a new action to protect prayer in public schools.
“Very soon I’ll be taking action to safeguard students and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools,” Trump said.
“In urging congregants to come to a political rally, and in hosting the political rally, King Jesus Ministry appears to have inappropriately used its religious organization and 501(c)(3) status by intervening in a political campaign,” Markert writes. “It violated IRS regulations by seemingly expressing its support for a candidate in the November 2020 presidential election.”
Although Trump has claimed that the Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty “got rid of” the Johnson Amendment, the order did no such thing. The Department of Justice has twice disavowed this notion in open court, after FFRF sued to prove that an executive order cannot overturn enacted legislation. The Johnson Amendment remains in full effect, and churches may not promote political campaigns.
“It would be hard to imagine a more overt and flagrant violation of ethics and the IRS code than this planned rally,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “But perhaps it is not surprising, given the president’s incessant and untrue mantra that the Johnson Amendment has been repealed.”
The El Rey Jesús megachurch is now claiming that the Trump campaign rented its facilities.