First Baptist Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress Plans to Breach the Wall Between Church and State

First Baptist Church of Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress wants to repeal the Johnson Amendment. The mega-church pastor, leader of a flock of more than 12,000 parishioners, is pushing for America's churches to be allowed to make political donations and endorsements.

"I want to say this very clearly, I am for repealing the Johnson Amendment not because I want to go around endorsing political candidates, I have no interest in doing that from my church," Jeffress said Monday during an appearance on conservative host Mike Gallagher's radio show.

The comment was odd since Jeffress has endorsed Donald Trump's candidacy for president. No church or pastor, as Jeffress readily tells Gallagher, has ever lost its tax-exempt status for engaging in political activity, but he, with the help of Trump, wants to get rid of the rule nonetheless. Pastors, Jeffress said, are being intimidated out of speaking out on topics like abortion and same-sex marriage.

"The Johnson Amendment and the IRS code has been abused by liberals, used by liberals to intimidate pastors," he said, referring to issues of selective enforcement by the IRS that have become a rallying cry for right-wing activists.

Adopted in 1954, the Johnson Amendment threatens any nonprofit with tax exempt status with losing that status should it engage in partisan political activity. From the IRS explanation of the amendment:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

Throughout 2016, Jeffress has popped up at Trump's side: at two rallies in Dallas, at a rally in Fort Worth and last September, when Jeffress and a group of conservative religious leaders laid hands on Trump at Trump Tower. As Trump has attempted to woo evangelical voters, he's made it clear that he wants to repeal the Johnson Amendment as well.

Friday, at the annual Value Voters Summit in Washington D.C., the candidate made it clear that he wants to free Jeffress and other pastors from the Johnson Amendment.

"The Johnson Amendment has blocked our pastors and ministers and others from speaking their minds from their own pulpits. If they want to talk about Christianity, if they want to preach, if they want to talk about politics, they are unable to do so," Trump said. "If they want to do it, they take a tremendous risk, that they lose their tax-exempt status. All religious leaders should be able to freely express their thoughts and feelings on religious matters. And I will repeal the Johnson Amendment if I am elected your president. I promise."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young

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