Ever since Donald Trump was a candidate, he’s been wooing the Religious Right with promises to repeal the Johnson Amendment. If he’s successful, that would mean pastors could tell their congregations who to vote for — blatantly playing politics — without losing their churches’ tax exemptions.
Many church leaders argue the Johnson Amendment, passed in 1954, is an unfair restriction on their free speech rights — even though it applies to all 501(c)(3) non-profit groups and not just religious organizations.
But repealing it would be devastating, according to American Atheists’ National Legal and Public Policy Director Amanda Knief:
… without the amendment in place, a church could pass the offering plate in support of the 2020 Trump campaign, invite one candidate for elected office to speak at a church service but not their opponent, and receive donations in return for political endorsements. Because the IRS does not require financial disclosures from churches, all of the examples above would happen without transparency and public knowledge.
Just to reiterate, because churches (unlike other non-profits) get the unique privilege of not having to disclose their finances, they would effectively become political tools — even more than they unofficially are right now. They can already speak out against policies like marriage equality or comprehensive sex education. What they want is the additional ability to spell out to their members which almost-certainly Republican candidates they should mindlessly support in a voting booth.
That’s also why there are religious leaders who want to keep the Johnson Amendment in place. They don’t want their churches to play politics. In fact, nearly 100 religious organizations have signed on to a letter opposing any repeal efforts. And that’s on top of another similar letter supported by more than 4,500 non-profit groups.
Today, we learned how they might do it. John Wagner of the Washington Post writes that Republican leaders may stick a repeal of the Johnson Amendment in the tax reform bill they plan to send to Trump.
The inclusion of the repeal in broader tax legislation could bolster its chances. A stand-alone bill would almost certainly face a filibuster in the Senate, where opponents fear the measure would effectively turn churches into super PACS.
Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which counts repeal of the Johnson amendment as a top priority, said he is not as concerned with how the repeal happens as he is that Trump and other Republican leaders keep their promise.
“That would be fine with us, if it were to become law as part of a tax package,” Reed said. “We’d like to have an up-or-down vote, but this might make it easier to pass.”
As Reed correctly notes, one of the reasons this is a disturbing update is that shoving the repeal in a massive tax bill means that it won’t get much attention. It’s not like politicians would just be taking a vote on that bill, opening them up to criticism. They could vote on the entire package and say they had to accept some of the additional controversial provisions to achieve some greater good.
Let’s be clear: No tax reform bill with this provision should pass. The law preventing non-profits from playing politics in exchange for not paying taxes is fine as it is.
Be sure to call your elected representatives and let them know that.
(Image via Shutterstock)