News and Commentary

Freedom From Religion Foundation Asks IRS To ‘Commence An Immediate Investigation’ Into Florida Church Because Of ‘Evangelicals For Trump’ Rally
A group of religious leaders pray for President Donald Trump during an "Evangelicals for Trump" campaign rally at El Rey Jesus Evangelical church in Kendall, Fla., on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020.
Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

On Friday, President Trump traveled to Miami, Florida, to attend a rally at King Jesus International Ministry church. At the rally, the president was prayed over by faith leaders.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that on Sunday, Pastor Guillermo Maldonado tried to reassure his immigrant parishioners that he wouldn’t put them in danger by hosting the president at the church:

You don’t have to be a citizen. And I will give you an affirmation as your spiritual father and your pastor. First, someone said, “But how can you bring Trump to church if there’s people who don’t have papers?” I ask you: Do you think I would do something where I would endanger my people? I’m not that dumb.

Maldonado reportedly added: “I don’t think the president would do such a thing. 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.”

The event caught the notice of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which is an organization that “works as an umbrella for those who are free from religion and are committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church,” according to its official website.

In a public letter dated December 31, FFRF Legal Director Rebecca S. Markert asked the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to “commence an immediate investigation” into King Jesus International Ministry for alleged violations of their 501(c)(3) tax exempt status.

The letter reads in part:

We understand that King Jesus Ministry will host a political rally for President Trump on Friday, January 3, 2020 at 5:00 p.m. EST. We are informed that the church’s leader and pastor, Apostle Maldonado urged his congregation to attend this political rally, telling them, “If you want to come, do it for your pastor. That’s a way of supporting me.”

…IRS regulations specify 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.”

…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 intervened [sic] in a political campaign. It violated IRS regulations by seemingly expressing its support for a candidate in the November 2020 presidential election.

The Daily Wire spoke with FFRF’s co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor, who said that “it’s hard to imagine a more flagrant violation of the Johnson Amendment than a church hosting a political rally for a presidential candidate, and in this case, a presidential candidate who has repeatedly said that the Johnson Amendment has been overturned by him, which is a big fat lie.”

When asked if the King Jesus International Ministry church could be under the impression that President Trump had indeed overturned the Johnson Amendment, and were thus unaware that they could be in violation of their 501(c)(3) status, Gaylor replied: “If they believe the president … they may believe it, or they may just believe that they are free to violate the law given the endorsement of this by the president.”

The Daily Wire also reached out to University of San Diego Professor Miranda Fleischer, who specializes in non-profit law and tax, in order to verify the legality of the “Evangelicals for Trump” rally.

Fleischer stated:

From what I can gather from the story, this would blatantly violate the prohibition against all 501(c)(3) organizations (including, but not limited to churches) intervening in a political campaign. From what I can tell, not even a close call as to whether it violates the law, but of course, whether the IRS will do anything is another matter.

According to the IRS:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations 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. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

This is known as the “Johnson Amendment.”

King Jesus International Ministry has released a statement “regarding Evangelicals for Trump” in which the organization seems to suggest that they have done nothing inappropriate:

King Jesus International Ministry is a non-partisan, non-political church. Our ministry does not endorse any political candidates or engage in political campaigns. It is a religious organization that ministers to the community. While we advocate for issues we care deeply about, such as family and respect for life, we do not take positions in political campaigns. The January 3 Evangelicals for Trump event is being paid for and organized by President Trump’s election campaign. We agreed to lease space in exchange for fair compensation. No church resources are being used and our agreement to provide rental space is not an endorsement of President Trump’s campaign or any political party.

Apostle Guillermo Maldonado, in a personal capacity, has been selected to be a part of the Evangelicals for Trump Coalition. The Coalition is a group of pastors who pray for and advise the President on spiritual matters and important issues from a Christian perspective.

Our ministry will continue to join with other Christians to pray for all our leaders and office seekers, regardless of their affiliations.

In May 2017, President Trump issued an executive order, which reads in part:

All executive departments and agencies … shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech. In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury. As used in this section, the term “adverse action” means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions made to entities exempted from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit.

According to The Washington Post, several months after the president issued the order, the Justice Department noted: “The Order does not exempt religious organizations from the restrictions on political campaign activity applicable to all tax-exempt organizations.”

Despite this, President Trump has said on multiple occasions (which are documented by The Washington Post), that he “got rid of the Johnson Amendment,” or a variation of such a claim.

For example, in May 2019, the president stated:

One of the things I am most proud of is the Johnson Amendment. You can now speak your mind and speak it freely. I said I was going to do that. … They took away your voice politically and these are the people I want to listen to politically but you weren’t allowed to speak. They would lose their tax-exempt status. That’s not happening anymore so we got rid of the Johnson Amendment. That’s a big thing.

For these claims, The Washington Post gave Trump “four Pinocchios.”