The Johnson Amendment is on the verge of being repealed. If that happens, church across the country will be permitted to endorse political candidates — essentially telling their congregations who to vote for — and take in contributions that can be funneled into campaigns, all without losing their tax exemptions. Many churches would become, in practice, new fundraising arms of the GOP.
Conservative critics have long said this stifles free speech, but the Johnson Amendment applies to all non-profits. The ACLU, the NRA, churches, and national atheist groups cannot tell you how to cast your ballot without putting their tax exemptions in jeopardy.
But the Republican Party’s proposed “tax reform” bill includes a provision that would effectively eliminate the Johnson Amendment. As we noted earlier this month, the way the repeal was written, a wealthy church member could threaten to withhold donations to a church unless a pastor endorsed a specific candidate on a Sunday morning — and it would all be perfectly within the bounds of the new law.
That’s why thousands of religious leaders have opposed the repeal. They don’t want religion merging with politics, for good reason.
But there was another problem with the way the repeal was written. Section 5201 of the tax bill said that only churches would be allowed to play politics like this. Not all non-profits. So while an evangelical megachurch could tell members to vote for Donald Trump in 2018, the Freedom From Religion Foundation couldn’t tell members to vote for Al Franken. That discrepancy would likely become the basis of a future lawsuit filed by church/state separation groups if the bill were ever passed.
Now, the GOP is trying to plug that hole before it’s too late.
The House Ways and Means Committee just announced a set of amendments to H.R. 1 that includes a modification to the Johnson Amendment repeal:
Section 5201 — Churches permitted to make statements relating to political campaign in ordinary course of religious services and activities
This amendment ensures that all 501(c)(3) organizations will not fail to be treated as organized and operated exclusively for their respective non-profit purposes because of engagement in certain political speech, as long as the speech is in the ordinary course of the organization’s business and the organization’s expenses related to such speech are de minimis. This provision is effective for tax years beginning after December 31, 2018 and is sunset for tax years beginning after December 31, 2023.
In short, the GOP is saying all non-profits would be allowed to endorse candidates without losing their tax exemptions, not just churches. It’s still a problem because while advocacy groups might lean in a particular direction, many groups that try to be apolitical would suddenly be thrust into the politics game — and that includes religious organizations.
The amendment doesn’t make things better. It just puts a bandage on the most likely cause of a lawsuit. It turns all non-profits into political pawns.
Make no mistake: The GOP isn’t doing this because non-profit leaders want to be able to endorse candidates. They’re doing it to cover their own asses in the case this amendment is adopted in the final version of a signed bill.
It’s not too late to complain. Contact the House Ways and Means Committee and urge them to eliminate this Amendment. Call or write your member of Congress and tell him or her to vote against H.R. 1. The Secular Coalition for America has an easy way for you to do that right here.
Fight this before Republicans ruin something else for the sake of political power.