Newly proposed Republicans’ bill includes, among many changes, a stipulation which would modify the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment, a 63-year-old tax law, prohibits churches and other tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. As Washington Post reports, the Republicans’ bill would make it legal for ministers and other religious leaders to endorse candidates from the pulpit but stops short of allowing other political participation such as financial contributions from churches to campaigns.
According to the tax reform legislation which was unveiled on Thursday, churches won’t lose their tax-exempt status “solely because of the content of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.” That formulation of the law makes members of the clergy who endorse candidates from the pulpit legally protected. The stipulation applies only to religious institutions and not to other tax-exempt nonprofits which means that the Johnson Amendment isn’t completely destroyed. Only Congress has the power to officially repeal the amendment.
Without the Johnson Amendment, donors could give their money to churches, which could then give it to political candidates. It could make political donations effectively tax-exempt and bypassing the laws on campaign donation disclosures.
President Donald Trump often touted his opposition to the Johnson Amendment when speaking to evangelical pastors during his presidential campaign, and at the National Prayer Breakfast soon after his inauguration, he said he would “totally destroy” the 1954 provision. He issued an executive order in May, surrounded by religious leaders he invited to the Rose Garden, in which he directed the IRS not to penalize clergy for political speech.
Larry T. Decker, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, said in a statement: “Religious nonprofits are already exempt from taxes and financial transparency. The repeal of the Johnson Amendment would bestow churches with unprecedented power and exempt them from all accountability to the taxpayers and the parishioners who fill their coffers.”
Maggie Garrett, legislative director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, also warned that the legislation is bad for taxpayers and also for churches. “This is bad policy,” Garrett said in a statement. “It’s bad for churches, and it’s bad for American taxpayers who will potentially see their money going to support partisan political operations being run out of church basements.”
A Pew Research Center survey from 2016 showed that a strong majority of Americans didn’t think churches should endorse specific political candidates (66 percent). Also, the situation is similar across many religious groups. Only 33 percent of Protestants, 28 percent of Catholics, and 26 percent of the religiously unaffiliated think churches should endorse candidates during elections.
Photo Credits: Charisma Magazine