January 2, 2020; The Hill
The Trump presidential campaign has held rallies at a variety of cities and venues. Many have provoked protests from those who oppose the president and his positions. But the rally to be held this Friday, January 3rd, at the King Jesus International Ministry, a megachurch in Miami, has prompted a call for the IRS to revoke the church’s nonprofit status.
A letter from the legal director of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that works on separation of religion and state issues, calls on the IRS to “promptly investigate” the church for appearing to expressly support President Trump. The church minister has urged his congregants to attend the rally, as a way of supporting the Ministry and his own work.
The grounds for the IRS investigation go directly to the Johnson Amendment, which specifies that nonprofits with 501c3 status are prohibited from “participating in or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” While church and religious leaders may express their own opinions as individuals, they may not make “partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.”
In their letter to the IRS, the Freedom from Religion Foundation points out:
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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 501c3 status by intervening in a political campaign. It violated IRS regulations by seemingly expressing its support for a candidate in the November 2020 presidential election.
The King Jesus International Ministry states on its website that it is a nonpartisan, non-political church that does not endorse candidates or engage in political campaigns. It does advocate on issues of concern to its ministry, though. The church claims it is being paid for the use of its site by the Trump election campaign, and that leasing of space should not be seen as an endorsement of President Trump. Church officials also point out that their pastor Guillermo Maldonado’s role as a member of the Evangelicals for Trump Coalition is done in a “personal capacity” in order to pray for and advise the president on spiritual matters from a Christian perspective.
All of this points to some areas of caution for all nonprofits as we move into the depths of the 2020 elections. There are rules and regulations that govern what nonprofits, depending on what your nonprofit status is, can and cannot do regarding elections, candidates, and campaigns and campaign issues. Nonprofits can find themselves on a slippery slope, so get to know the boundaries and limits.
Good resources to guide you are just a click away. A good source for “do’s and don’ts” is the Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy Initiative. The resources here are many, and you can even get a human being to chat with you to answer that question you just cannot solve! And, you can download a copy of The Rules of the Game: A Guide to Election-Related Activities for 501c3 Organizations, which is chock full of information and very well indexed, so you can find what you need.
What will come of the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s letter? The Trump rally will certainly take place at the King Jesus International Ministry church. It is certainly possible that the IRS, with enough pressure, will investigate, and it’s conceivable the church could lose its 501c3 status, though it seems unlikely. (Some churches have, as is noted in Rules of the Game, but others have received mere reprimands.) It is hard to know which way the wind will blow in today’s environment. Perhaps it is best for nonprofits, religious and others, to know the rules and to err on the side of caution.—Carole Levine