While a recent executive order that takes away penalties for religious organizations that explicitly promote political candidates has been criticized and praised across the nation, local pastors said the order doesn’t change how they’ll conduct their churches.
Among other provisions, the Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty, which president Donald Trump signed May 4, forbids the Department of the Treasury from imposing a tax or tax penalty on any religious non-profit that endorses a political candidate, which is prohibited in a section of the tax code known as the Johnson Amendment.
Weston Williams, minister of Bowling Green Christian Church, said the executive order would not change his approach to conducting his church.
“When the church gets involved in the government, it gets really ugly,” he said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Though the Johnson Amendment has endured criticism over the years that it curtails the free speech of faith communities, Weston said the law doesn’t impact the way he runs the church or make him feel restricted in what he can say.
“I never felt hindered by it,” he said.
He did, however, call attention to a potential for churches to abuse Trump’s order by effectively serving as a front for a group seeking to impact the political process.
The change could lead to the establishment of “fake paper churches being used to funnel money into political purposes,” he said.
Despite this possibility, Williams said he anticipates most churches throughout the country to continue functioning as they did before the executive order.
“I’ve spent very little time worrying about Donald Trump or this executive order,” he said.
Williams’ hypothetical scenario of some churches effectively being used as political action committees has occurred to the Freedom From Religion Foundation as well.
On May 4, the day Trump signed the order, FFRF filed suit against Trump and IRS commissioner John Koskinen.
Andrew Seidel, a member of the group’s legal staff, said some megachurches have immense potential to use money to fund political candidates.
“This would make Citizens United look like child’s play,” he said, referring to a controversial Supreme Court ruling that prohibited the government from putting a limit on independent political contributions made by corporations and other groups.
“It is no exaggeration to say that millions of dollars could be flowing into churches and being spent on political advertisements and they’d have no obligation to report any of it,” he said.
The Johnson Amendment, which can be read on Cornell Law School’s website, includes a section that disallows non-profit organizations of both a religious and secular nature from endorsing political candidates.
Under the amendment, all organizations that are recognized as exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Tax Code are subject to the prohibition against political campaign intervention.
Seidel also said the order opens up the possibility of pastors “(tying) spiritual blackmail into their messages,” while still presiding over a tax-exempt church.
While some argue that the Johnson Amendment curtails their right to free speech, Seidel said the amendment is simply asking for something in return for tax-exempt status.
“Tax exemption is a privilege, it’s not a right,” he said. “The government can attach strings to that and one of the strings is you can’t endorse a candidate.”
The Johnson Amendment, however, does not prohibit discussing social and religious matters that have some overlap with current politics, Seidel said.
“It doesn’t prevent them from talking about issues,” he said. “Religious groups are perfectly free to talk about abortion or gay marriage.”
Amber Duke, communications director for American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said the ACLU opposes the order but stopped short of pursuing legal action against the Trump administration.
She said ACLU doesn’t anticipate the executive order resulting in real policy outcomes despite the lip service it pays to religious organizations.
“While we might not agree with it on its face, we don’t see any discernible action happening as a result of it being put forward,” she said.
When reached for comment, Sedin Agic, the Islamic Center of Bowling Green’s imam, declined to speak about political issues.
Jason Pettus, senior pastor at Living Hope Baptist Church, said he appreciates the order giving religious groups an expanded right to free speech.
“For those churches and nonprofit organizations that desire to step into the political realm, it gives them the First Amendment rights everyone else seems to enjoy,” he said.
Like Williams, Pettus said the order won’t change the way he runs his church because he’s not interested in spreading political messages from his pulpit.
Living Hope is a “Gospel-centered church” focused on cultural engagement with the scriptures, he said.
“Politics doesn’t have a place in what we’re pursuing,” he said of Living Hope’s ministry. “There’s nothing in that order that will change what I have done for the last 24 years.”
Pettus said he’s not concerned about Trump’s order not extending protections from the Johnson Amendment to secular nonprofits because he thinks the Johnson Amendment targets religious groups more frequently.
Historically, the Johnson Amendment has hardly ever been enforced since it was made part of the tax code in 1954, Siedel said.
A FFRF news release from 2014 explains that the FFRF sued the IRS in 2012 “to compel it to enforce its own regulations barring tax-exempt 501©(3) nonprofits from engaging in partisan political activity.”
The release also said FFRF voluntarily dismissed the case because “recent clarifications by the IRS have remedied its concerns.”
While enforcement of the Johnson Amendment has generally been lax, Siedel said the executive order forbidding its enforcement is unacceptable.
“There’s a difference between having a law in place and having a law in place and Trump saying we’re not going to enforce it at all,” he said.
Travis Wussow, vice president of Public Policy at Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that, though the Johnson Amendment is generally not enforced, its presence has a chilling effect on free speech.
“Whether or not a pastor can endorse a candidate is for the pastor to say, not for the government,” he said. “We should be happy any time the government is retreating from an area it shouldn’t be regulating.”
Following the executive order, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission advises pastors to be constructive and focus mainly on matters of faith, Wussow said.
– Follow Daily News reporter Jackson French on Twitter @Jackson_French or visit bgdailynews.com.