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Campaign rally at Florida church raises questions about tax-exempt campaigning

A campaign rally for President Trump at an apostolic church in Miami is drawing scrutiny, including calls for the IRS to investigate due to the church’s tax-exempt status. The event launches the “Evangelicals for Trump” arm of the campaign. The church’s minister is “a member of a Trump’s inner circle of pastors,” according to a Tampa Bay Times report.

The King Jesus International Ministry, for its part, reiterates that it is a non-partisan organization and merely leased its 7,000-seat auditorium to the Trump campaign at a commercially reasonable rate, without providing any church resources or personnel to support the event.

While it is commonplace for candidates to attend church services during a campaign, it is surely unusual for a house of worship to host a full-blown campaign event. The Tampa Bay Times has more:

“Maggie Garrett, the vice president of public policy at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said she couldn’t recall any previous candidate for president holding a comparable political event. Rather, it’s the latest instance of Trump flouting political norms and sprinting past a line that candidates traditionally run up to or sometimes stick a toe over.

 

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‘Trump is exploiting this church and allowing it to risk its tax exempt status in order to win a campaign,’ Garrett said.”

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In a letter to the IRS requesting an investigation into the event, the Freedom From Religion Foundation emphasized that the pastor “urged his congregation to attend the political rally.”

Tax-exempt organizations – including houses of worship – are barred from engaging in partisan political activity for or against a candidate, though they may host candidate forums. As the Tampa Bay Times report notes, the IRS rarely takes action to enforce that ban on 501(c)(3) groups electioneering, known as the “Johnson Amendment,” but it remains an important marker of protection for congregations against politicization and exploitation.

BJC has been a leader in successfully protecting the Johnson Amendment against numerous attempts to repeal or weaken it. For more, see BJC’s Community Not Candidates resource page.

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