Retract your church electioneering falsehoods, FFRF advises FEC chair

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking the Federal Election Commission chairman to withdraw a series of deeply misleading statements made during a recent media interview.

During a chat with the far-right media outlet Church Militant, FEC Chairman James Trainor III complained about Catholic bishops obeying the IRS regulations known as the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits from endorsing political candidates.

The FEC is meant to be an independent regulatory agency charged with ensuring that campaign finance laws are obeyed, FFRF reminds the chairman. Church Militant is a fringe entity, reportedly denounced by the Catholic Church, that publishes radical articles consistently anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman and strongly opposed to parts of the First Amendment.  The power and prestige of an independent public office should not be used to promote the propaganda of such a dangerous group. Trainor’s ill-advised appearance was made even worse by his dishonest discourse.

“You attacked Catholic bishops for not endorsing political candidates, saying that they ‘hide behind’ their nonprofit status,” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write to Trainor. “In so doing, you are using the power of your federal office to encourage Catholic leaders to endorse a political candidate in violation of the law. This is an egregious abuse of your office and of the public trust.”

Trainor went on to cite President Trump’s “religious liberty” executive order as evidence that churches could ignore the Johnson Amendment and endorse candidates: “The churches can absolutely engage in that activity now.” But he failed to mention that, in response to a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Justice Department twice told a federal court that the executive order did not, and could not, repeal the Johnson Amendment. Trump lied about the Johnson Amendment, and by repeating that lie, Trainor has misrepresented the law and encouraged church leaders to break it.

Trainor also suggested that the Johnson Amendment treats religious organizations less favorably than secular organizations. In fact, the Johnson Amendment has always applied equally to all nonprofits, both secular and religious. If anything, churches have received favorable treatment through a lack of enforcement.

And Trainor falsely implied that political endorsements are protected speech under the First Amendment, and therefore cannot be prohibited by the Johnson Amendment. No court has ever agreed with this position and courts have held churches responsible for political endorsements.

FFRF is demanding that Trainor immediately apologize for misguiding church leaders.

“This interview deliberately misled churches and encouraged them to violate the law,” Barker and Gaylor conclude. “Please correct the record.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members across the country, including members in all 50 states. FFRF protects the constitutional separation between state and church and educates about nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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