Self-described law-and-order candidate Ron DeSantis held what his website termed “the campaign kick-off event” of “Our Great American Comeback” at an Iowa church that may well have been breaking a federal law on Tuesday evening.
The Eternity Church in Clive is a tax-exempt organization. And, as such, it is subject to an amendment sponsored by then-U.S Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, which states that churches and charities are “prohibited by the terms of their exemption from participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.”
Last week, DeSantis said he would welcome a bill to defund the IRS. He now appears to simply be ignoring it. Neither he nor the Eternity Church responded to a request for comment. But the church’s pastor, Jesse Newman, posted a tweet on Tuesday afternoon, noting “Hillary spoke @ churches’ AND .”Biden spoke @ churches,” adding, “ They all use churches as venues.” Of the DeSantis campaign Newman tweeted, “They’re just using our venue! So haters - be consistent!”
Two tax experts interviewed by The Daily Beast suggested that the church could conceivably argue that it was simply affording DeSantis an opportunity available to any candidate. And, they said, Newman can rightly say that he is as free as anyone to express his personal support for one.
“[The] Johnson amendment DOES NOT stop Pastors from talking politics,” Newman tweeted last week. “And if it did I would ignore it and preach the whole truth anyway! Our Faith MUST influence our Politics!”
However, Professor Philip Hackney of the University of Pittsburgh and Professor Lloyd Mayer of University of Notre Dame suggested that the IRS prohibition could kick in if a pastor is speaking in his official capacity during a campaign event held at their church.
“It’s definitely a yellow flag,” Mayer said.
Nothing in the IRS code prevents Newman from expressing his opinion on his personal Twitter account regarding the same culture-war issues that DeSantis hopes will carry him into the White House. The pastor has described being woke as “one of the most ungodly & unjust movements in our country! They package a new breed of racism (CRT), sexual perversion & other progressive ideologies together, into a false but alluring cause & call it Social Justice.”
Newman further contended, “Every time a pastor says ANYTHING the woke mob disagrees with, they call it politics & demand you shut up or they’ll report you to the IRS. They have no ability to back up their positions, so they demand you be silenced!”
With regards to gender, Newman has tweeted, “Your biological maleness or femaleness is a gift from God. It’s intentionally given to you by God. It’s a huge part of your identity and your purpose in this life…” Newman outdoes even DeSantis when it comes to churches that support gay rights.
Meanwhile, in another tweet, Newman seemed to make reference to DeSantis’ “Great Comeback” slogan. “Don’t believe America’s best days are behind her! …The Devil has stolen, he has killed, he has destroyed, but IT’S ALL COMING BACK!!!!
The pastor’s comments are protected by the First Amendment. But a federal court found in 2000 that free speech and political expression can reach a limit when it comes to the Johnson Amendment, which is codified as Section 501(c)(3).
The case involved a 1992 newspaper advertisement that the Church at Pierce Creek of New York took out condemning then-candidate Bill Clinton for supporting abortion and homosexuality. The church argued in federal court that it had been unfairly singled out because of its conservative views. The judge affirmed the IRS’s decision to remove the church’s tax-exempt status.
“The government has a compelling interest in maintaining the integrity of the tax system and in not subsidizing partisan political activity, and Section 501(c)(3) is the least restrictive means of accomplishing that,” the course found.
A campaign appearance is not the same as a partisan newspaper ad. But the prohibition against participating in a political campaign would seem to apply when it comes to a campaign kick-off rally complete with a large crowd holding campaign signs reading “DeSantis.”
When the moment of the big event arrived, Newman stepped up to a podium that had “DeSantis for President” affixed to the front. Newman led the assembly in prayer for the Florida governor who is striving to become president.
“As he stands for righteousness and as the vicious onslaughts of those who plan to do wicked come against him,” Newman said, “I pray [it will] have no effect on him or his family, or his campaign or his desire to stand up for the truth. “
The pastor seemed to be crossing a line as he described DeSantis’ campaign as a contest between the righteous and the wicked.
“God, I pray that all that the enemy means for harm, I believe you’re going to use it for good. We pray this in the name of Jesus.”
Newman ended by saying, “Could somebody say ‘Amen’?”
And from the crowd of people with campaign signs came a reply.