Kentucky governor reportedly told preachers to ignore IRS regulations banning churches from endorsing candidates

Posted October 11

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin was reportedly captured on video telling a group of preachers to ignore Internal Revenue Service regulations that ban churches from endorsing candidates from the pulpit, according to The Associated Press.

Bevin, a Republican, purportedly made the remarks to a group of around 160 pastors who attended an event at the governor's mansion Sept. 22 titled, "Pastor Appreciation Forum."

"Do you know how many churches have lost their tax-exempt status because of political speeches or preaching that has occurred?" he said. "Zero."

Bevin told the audience there's "no reason to fear" the Johnson Amendment, a law that precludes 501(c)(3) organizations, which include nonprofit charities and churches, from endorsing and campaigning for or against a candidate.

"There is no reason to be silent," Bevin told the audience. "And that we have been exhorted and encouraged to have this boldness and this spirit, to be unapologetic, and I would encourage you to do it."

Watch his comments here.

A video of Bevin's remarks was posted online by Kentuckians Against Matt Bevin, with the clip gaining traction last week in media.

The video originally came from an event attendee and was first posted to his Facebook page, according to WPFL. The source has reportedly not discussed the authenticity of the clip's contents since that unfolded.

Richard Nelson, executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, who also spoke at the pastoral gathering, told WPFL that the six-minute video of Bevin that is being circulated is only part of the governor's 15- to 20-minute speech and that his remarks are being taken out of context.

"I didn’t see this as politicizing, in fact, I think he was careful not to politicize the pulpit. He didn’t say ‘y'all need to get up Sunday morning and tell your people to vote for Republicans,'" Nelson told the outlet. "But he was trying to dispel the idea that churches shouldn’t speak to moral issues or social issues."

Bevin spokeswoman Amanda Stamper responded to media inquiries by saying the governor "simply encouraged the ministers to preach boldly."

The Johnson Amendment has long been controversial in conservative circles. The law, which dates back to 1954, is named after then-Texas Democratic Senator Lyndon Johnson.

Critics claim the measure restricts the free speech rights of nonprofit charities and churches, though proponents argue it is inappropriate for institutions that are exempt from taxes to use funds to support or rail against candidates.

The Republican Party has upped the ante on its opposition to the Johnson Amendment in recent months, with GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump pledging to overturn it, and with the official Republican Party platform embracing that same proposal. Additionally, new legislation aims to amend the measure.

HR6195, known as the Free Speech Fairness Act, wouldn't repeal the Johnson Amendment. That said, it would allow any 501(c)(3) organization to legally make statements about campaigns if those comments are made in the "ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities," according to Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Erik Stanley.

The Free Speech Fairness Act was introduced in the House of Representatives last Wednesday, and it's future prospects are uncertain.

While it's true that the IRS has not rabidly enforced the Johnson Amendment, the agency did revoke the 501(c)(3) status of The Church of Pierce Creek in Binghamton, New York, after the church published an ad in USA Today in the 1990s, calling it sinful to vote for Bill Clinton, as Deseret News previously reported.

You can read a complete history of the Johnson Amendment here.

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