Donald Trump is campaigning at a Florida church today. Is that allowed?

Federal law says probably not, but it’s unlikely the IRS will enforce it, experts said.
In September 2017, religious leaders pray with President Donald Trump after he signed a proclamation for a national day of prayer to occur on Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.
In September 2017, religious leaders pray with President Donald Trump after he signed a proclamation for a national day of prayer to occur on Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. [ EVAN VUCCI | AP ]
Published Jan. 3, 2020|Updated Jan. 13, 2020

President Donald Trump will bring his campaign to an Apostolic megachurch in the Miami suburbs today for a rally widely seen as a response to calls for his removal for office from some in the Christian community.

A basic question about the event begs exploration: Is this even legal?

There’s a longstanding federal prohibition on churches engaging in politics dating back to President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. Churches that violate the law imperil their coveted tax exempt status.

How, then, can King Jesus International Ministry in Kendall host Trump’s campaign?

The answer, most likely, is it can’t, legal experts agreed. But they also said there’s little that will be done about it.

“There’s not very much enforcement by the IRS on this,” said Ellen Aprill, a professor of nonprofit law at Loyola University Marymount. “So a lot of compliance is voluntary.”

Throughout the history of American politics, candidates have often spent time in church pews as part of their campaign to win over religious voters. Democratic contenders for president have visited mosques in Iowa and New Hampshire and black churches in South Carolina in their race for the party’s nomination.

But rarely, if ever, has a president held a rally at a house of worship like the one Trump has scheduled for today. In King Jesus International Ministry’s 7,000-seat auditorium, Trump will launch Evangelicals for Trump and he’s expected to make a full-throated pitch for the country’s religious right to coalesce behind his campaign.

The event was announced a week after Christianity Today, a leading evangelical magazine, published an editorial calling for Trump’s impeachment.

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.

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

The ministry, also called El Rey Jesús, serves a predominantly Latino community in South Florida and was founded by Guillermo Maldonado, a pastor who calls himself an apostle and purportedly conducts miracles. Maldonado is a member of Trump’s inner circle of pastors and recently attended the White House Christmas Party, where he snapped pictures with Trump’s son Eric and his daughter-in-law Lara.

“El Rey Jesús was a natural fit to launch our Evangelicals for Trump coalition,” said Kayleigh McEnany, spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign. “Apostle Maldonado is a staunch supporter of the President, reflecting the great and overwhelming support President Trump has among the evangelical community at large.”

Maldonado has already raised eyebrows for a sermon last week, in which he promised undocumented parishioners they could attend the rally without fear of deportation, according to the Miami Herald. He then said, “If you want to come, do it for your pastor. That’s a way of supporting me."

The remark drew a rebuke on Tuesday from a Wisconsin watchdog group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which said Maldonado’s church “inappropriately used its religious organization and 501(c)(3) status by intervening in a political campaign.”

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, the church stressed that the space was leased to the Trump campaign “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,” the statement said.

The federal government has prohibited 501 nonprofit organizations from engaging in political activity since 1954. The statute is named the Johnson Amendment after its sponsor, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson. It intended to prevent churches and other nonprofits like hospitals and charities from taking a tax-exempt donation in exchange for political support.

But the law is difficult to enforce and is full of gray area. For example, pastors can support candidates and religious institutions can take positions against policies they say violate their beliefs.

However, a church cannot endorse or campaign for a candidate. Ed Zelinsky, author of Taxing the Church, said Trump’s event comes “uncomfortably close." Zelinsky has advocated changing the law to no longer “police what goes on in the borders of the church.” Nevertheless, he said: "That’s not the law today.”

Trump vowed to wage a war on this law — “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” he said in 2017. In his first year as president, Trump signed an executive order that he claimed fulfilled his promise. He once told Pat Robertson of Christian Broadcasting Network, “Ministers and preachers and rabbis and whoever it may be … can speak. You couldn’t before; now you can."

Organizations on either side of this issue don’t believe that to be true. PolitiFact rated Trump’s claim “Mostly False" and the Justice Department has argued in court the prohibitions are still in place.

There are few known instances of the federal government revoking a church’s tax-exempt status. The most infamous example was in response to a church that took out a full-page newspaper ad in 1992 against Bill Clinton because he supported abortion rights.

More lately, the IRS has remained silent even as religious leaders on both sides of the spectrum have increasingly waded into political debates.

The fear is that a total erosion or disregard for the Johnson Amendment could encourage people to make tax-free donations to churches and other nonprofits in exchange for political favors, said Sam Brunson, a tax law professor at Loyola University Chicago.

Imagine a scenario, he said, where someone offers to pay for a new hospital wing, but only if the doctors there endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All.

“It’s essentially laundering campaign contributions to churches,” Brunson said. “And that means suddenly taxpayers are subsidizing political speech in a way that the law doesn’t allow.”

Miami Herald reporter Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.