The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) claims the church is violating tax laws by participating in a political campaign.
"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," says Rebecca Markert, the foundation's legal director. "It violated IRS regulations by seemingly expressing its support for a candidate in the November 2020 presidential election."
The Miami Herald reported on Sunday that the church's pastor, Guillermo Maldonado, promised his undocumented parishioners they would be safe from deportation if they attended the rally. Whoever was concerned about their immigration status, despite the president's hard-line policies, need not worry, apparently.
"I don't think the president would do such a thing," Maldonado said, according to the Herald story. "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."
Telling his congregants to "do it for your pastor," crosses a line, Markert says, and is tantamount to the church endorsing Trump. Markert says she has written to the IRS's director of exempt organizations examinations (yes, that's a real thing!) demanding an investigation into the church.
The church's answering service said it was closed for the New Year's Eve holiday this afternoon, and a phone number for Maldonado was disconnected. The pastor told the Herald that Trump's event wasn't being financed or organized by the church.
The Johnson Amendment of the federal tax code, named after the 36th U.S. president, Lyndon B. Johnson, restricts nonprofits — including churches and religious organizations — from openly endorsing political parties or candidates in order to keep their tax-exempt status. But in recent years, some churches have pushed to get rid of the amendment so pastors can endorse politicians from the pulpit. Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Arizona-based nonprofit, started a campaign called Pulpit Freedom Sundays to protest the amendment, claiming it violates their free speech rights. The alliance encourages pastors to say what they want from the pulpit and opposes IRS investigations and penalties.
"America's pastors don't need a federal tax agency to police their sermons," Christiana Holcomb, a lawyer for the group, says on the organization's website.
Trump in 2017 signed an executive order that he claimed effectively got rid of the Johnson Amendment. PolitiFact determined that was "mostly false," saying the president doesn't have the authority to get rid of a law and that the executive order only directed the Treasury Department to go easy on its enforcement of the Johnson Amendment.
Just as the alliance claims the Johnson Amendment violates churches' constitutional rights, Markert and the Freedom From Religion Foundation argue that they're protecting the constitutional principle of separation of church and state by holding religious institutions accountable.
"All 501(c)(3)s are bound by regulations prohibiting them from participating in political campaigns," Markert says. "It's not fair for churches to get a free pass when other nonprofit organizations are bound by this."