Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) had a major ethics lapse recently when he advised clergy to break the law.

In an address to a group of pastors at the governor’s mansion, Bevin told them that even though the federal tax code prohibits houses of worship (and other 501(c)(3) organizations) from endorsing or opposing candidates for office, the Internal Revenue Service is just a “paper tiger” so there’s nothing to worry about.

“There is no reason to fear it; there is no reason to be silent,” Bevin claimed. “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.”

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin thinks its perfectly fine for churches to endorse candidates - and break the law.

In reality, Bevin is asking clergy to take a very big risk; meanwhile, he has nothing to lose by giving this bad advice. The risk comes to pastors in the form of fines or even loss of tax exemption, which are possible punishments if the IRS determines that a church unlawfully used its resources to help or hurt a particular candidate.

This election season, there has been quite a bit of talk about this issue as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has vowed repeatedly to repeal something called the “Johnson Amendment.” In 1954, then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) sponsored a change to the tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from getting involved in partisan political activity by endorsing or opposing candidates. Trump, apparently, is slightly obsessed with doing away with that law.  

Bevin, it seems, isn’t even concerned with whether or not the Johnson Amendment remains on the books. Maybe he should ask the Church at Pierce Creek (a.k.a. Branch Ministries) about that. In 1992, the church took out a newspaper ad telling people not to vote for then-Ark. Gov. Bill Clinton for president. As a result, the church lost its tax exemption and was unable to get it back in court.  

Americans United feels strongly that the IRS should aggressively uphold federal law in this area. (If you agree with us, please sign this petition). AU’s position was cited this week by the Associated Press, which did a story about Bevin’s remarks.

The story quoted AU as saying, “The majority of Americans – including the devout – oppose making houses of worship centers of partisan politics. “Pulpit politicking threatens to divide faith communities and erode the important boundary between church and state that make each distinct. It’s a bad deal all around.”

That Bevin, who spoke at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit last month, would give this bad advice isn’t really a big surprise. After all, the governor approved a “compromise” to assist Rowan County clerk Kim Davis, supported giving taxpayer dollars to an overtly religious theme park and opposed a settlement in an Americans United-sponsored case that prevents public funds from supporting a Christian care facility for children.

The Religious Right and its allies, like Bevin, have long dreamed of turning far-right churches into political action committees. Bevin doesn’t care about free speech and he isn’t worried about any consequences that could befall a church that breaks the law. He just wants to promote his agenda.

What Bevin doesn’t understand is that almost no one attends religious services to be told how to vote. They want to hear about matters of faith, and if they don’t get spiritual fulfillment from their chosen house of worship, they may stop attending.

Since Americans United wants to protect faith in the United States from the influences of partisan politics, we launched an initiative in 1996 called Project Fair Play. Since then, we’ve educated hundreds of thousands of clergy about what the IRS does and does not allow when it comes to election activity. We’ve also reported 125 churches and ministries that we believe did not play by the rules.

Faith and partisan politics must remain separate. Keeping them apart is good for religion and good for democracy.