The Rev. Robert Jeffress wasn't well known on the national stage until he became one of the earliest and most vocal of the evangelical Christian leaders who supported Donald Trump through his candidacy and into the White House. But to Americans United he was no stranger--in fact, Jeffress has been on AU's radar screen for two decades.
It was back in 1998 that Americans United first sounded the alarm about Jeffress' disdain for separation of religion and government.
Then a pastor at the First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls, Texas, Jeffress tried to rally his congregation of more than 8,000 to influence city politics and vote against any council members who didn't support his anti-LGBTQ views.
Jeffress' crusade began when he learned there were two books with LGBTQ themes in the children's section of his local public library. A parishioner had checked out and turned over to Jeffress Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate, two groundbreaking books that helped children understand families that included same-sex couples. Jeffress confiscated the books, refusing to return them to the library and instead paying $54 in fines.
He didn't stop there. At a library advisory board meeting, Jeffress threatened city leadership.
"Any council member who does not stand up and say these books should be taken from the shelves ought to be removed from office," he thundered. And days later, he rallied his congregation to "vote out the infidels who would deny God and his word."
Concerned citizens alerted Americans United, which sent a letter to Jeffress cautioning him that his actions risked violating the Johnson Amendment, the federal law that protects the integrity of elections and nonprofits, including houses of worship, by ensuring tax-exempt organizations don't endorse or oppose political candidates.
"Your comments about how your congregation should vote in the next election raise serious legal questions," wrote the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, then AU's executive director. "If you proceed with your plan to use your church to defeat city council members with whom you disagree, you are placing the tax-exempt status of your congregation in jeopardy."
Fast-forward about 13 years, and it was evident Jeffress hadn't bothered to heed AU's advice. By then, Jeffress was in a more prominent spot, pastoring Dallas' First Baptist Church, an influential Southern Baptist megachurch that celebrates its 150th anniversary this year and has counted the late Rev. Billy Graham as a member.
In October 2011, the church's website hosted two videos of Jeffress endorsing then Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the Republican presidential nod. One video featured Jeffress' endorsement while introducing Perry at the Values Voter Summit in Washington...