Politics

Gov. Matt Bevin told a group of ministers assembled at the governor’s mansion last week to ignore a federal law that forbids tax-exempt churches from advocating for the election or defeat of political candidates.

A crowd of about 130 church leaders from across the state attended the invite-only and unpublicized “Pastor Appreciation Forum” held at the governor’s residence.

An attendee named Ken Prevett, an investment consultant from Harrodsburg, originally posted the video to his Facebook page, which shows Bevin encouraging a group of pastors to disregard the Johnson Amendment, a section of the federal tax code passed in 1954.

A Facebook group called Kentuckians Against Matt Bevin has been circulating the video, which shows Bevin encouraging pastors to disregard the Johnson Amendment, a change to federal tax code passed in 1954.

“Since 1954, how many churches have lost their tax-exempt status because of political speeches or preaching that has occurred? Zero,” Bevin said to the group. “The reality is it is an absolute paper tiger and there is no reason to fear it, there is no reason to be silent. 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.”

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly called for the Johnson Amendment to be repealed. Scrapping the policy is part of the Republican Party’s platform this year.

The policy, which was approved while Lyndon B. Johnson was in the Senate, prohibits 501(c) (3) nonprofits from expressly endorsing or opposing political candidates. (According to Pew, Johnson and other Democrats pushed for the rule because they were concerned about nonprofits funding their opponents’ campaigns.) Because of their nonprofit status, donations to churches are tax deductible.

When asked if the governor was telling pastors to disregard the Johnson Amendment, Bevin’s press secretary Amanda Stamper said “The Governor simply encouraged the ministers to preach boldly.”

Prevett, the man who posted the six-minute video, could not be reached to confirm its authenticity.

Richard Nelson, executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, also spoke at the meeting. He says the recording is much shorter than Bevin’s full remarks, which he estimated to be 15 to 20 minutes long, and taken out of context in the video.

“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 said. “But he was trying to dispel the idea that churches shouldn’t speak to moral issues or social issues.”

Nelson said the governor hosted a larger Pastor Appreciation Forum on Sep. 22, with about 160 people in attendance.

In the video, Bevin compares pastors’ role in society to that of Ambrose of Milan, a bishop from the late years of the Roman Empire, who protested the murder of political opponents by Theodosius I, the emperor.

“He was a man who was called to task by someone like yourselves,” Bevin said. “And I just encourage you not to be afraid, to be bold and to be bold to challenge even your own idea of what bold is. And to have the intestinal fortitude and the spine to stand in that gap, to stand on that wall, to sound the alarm.”

Bevin has pushed for several religious conservative issues since taking office: one of his first executive orders removed county clerks’ names from marriage licenses — a policy advocated by Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who last year refused to sign the forms in protest of same-sex marriage.

Bevin has also joined multi-state lawsuits challenging federal rules dealing with transgender bathroom policies and transgender health discrimination.

Last month, Bevin drew fire for predicting that conservatives might have to “shed blood” to help the nation recover if Hillary Clinton were elected president.

In the video, Bevin encouraged the audience of pastors to “call out anyone who stands between you and what is right.”

“The reality is you see what’s coming, we see it, we’re talking about it. But what are we doing about it,” Bevin said. “If we don’t sound the trumpet, what is it said is that it’s on us. It’s on the watchmen. The watchman’s the one who’s held to account. This is what we’re calling for.”

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.