FEC says churches can endorse candidates – but it's still risky

Friday, September 18, 2020
 | 
Jody Brown, Steve Jordahl (OneNewsNow.com)

pastor in the pulpitLess than seven weeks before the 2020 presidential elections, the head of the Federal Election Commission is reminding people that it's okay for churches and other religious organizations to endorse candidates.

On Saturday, FEC chair Trey Trainor appeared on a Church Militant podcast, reminding viewers that the "Johnson Amendment," which forbids religious organizations from engaging in political activity, was rescinded by President Donald Trump his first week in office.

"One of the first things he did when he came into office in 2017 was issue an executive order to the Department of the Treasury, telling them that they could no longer enforce that provision of the law and that religious organizations needed to be treated the same as every other organization," Trainor explained.

He continued: "So the test that the Department of the Treasury uses now is: If that same speech were to come from a non-religious organization, could it be prosecuted? And clearly it would be First Amendment activity for any other organization to engage in – and therefore, the church should be able to engage in it."

In other words, if the National Education Association, for example, can endorse a candidate, so can a church – from the pulpit.

A subsequent report on Thursday from Religion News Service, however, quotes one of the FEC commissioners who disputes Trainor's claim.

"My colleague is not correct," says FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub. "Though the president's executive order directs law enforcement authorities to not enforce the Johnson Amendment, that statute remains the law of the land and cannot be undone with an executive order. Anyone tempted to violate the statute should keep in mind that a future administration could well decide to enforce the law as Congress wrote it."

Trainor clarified his remarks in that RNS story, admitting that "clearly" the president's executive order did not get rid of the Johnson Amendment.

"[The amendment] is still on the books," he acknowledged, "but with lack of enforcement authority by the executive agency, it's a law that's not going to be enforced."

Staver

OneNewsNow sought further clarification from Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel. Staver explains that the Johnson Amendment has actually always been unconstitutional.

"It never has had any teeth, because no church has ever lost its tax-exempt status," he shares. "The only teeth it has is in bullying or scaring pastors and churches into silence."

Staver is hopeful this announcement from the chairman of the Federal Election Commission wakes up a sleeping church.

The Johnson Amendment has been on the federal books since 1954 when then-Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-Texas) sponsored it.

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