Another bullet has been dodged. Once again, Donald Trump will fail in his effort to repeal the Johnson Amendment.
For more than a year now, Trump has promised the Religious Right that he would sign a repeal of the rule forbidding places of worship from endorsing political candidates if they want to keep their tax exempt status. If he were to rescind that rule, Christian churches be one step closer to essentially becoming fundraising arms of the Republican Party. We have no idea how much dark money would start flowing to campaigns via churches when that day arrives.
Trump even signed an executive order last May claiming to repeal the rule… but it had no teeth. It was more of a performance than anything substantive.
Since then, Republicans have attempted to do the job legislatively by putting a repeal into various spending bills… to no avail. The latest attempt was thought to be via the omnibus bill that will be voted in the House and Senate on by Friday.
But when the $1.3 trillion bill was finally released last night, the Johnson Amendment repeal wasn’t included. More specifically, there was no language prohibiting the IRS from using its time and money to go after churches that violate the rule by telling the congregation who to vote for.
The latest effort to repeal the Johnson Amendment didn’t happen – it wasn’t included in omnibus spending bill. Churches and nonprofits that reject politicking are rejoicing. https://t.co/bSrGp9IQAd
— Laurie Goodstein (@lauriegnyt) March 22, 2018
As that tweet notes, the irony here is that thousands and thousands of religious leaders will be thrilled by this omission. They’ve already signed a letter urging Congress to keep the Johnson Amendment in place.
Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines. The prophetic role of faith communities necessitates that we retain our independent voice. Current law respects this independence and strikes the right balance: houses of worship that enjoy favored tax-exempt status may engage in advocacy to address moral and political issues, but they cannot tell people who to vote for or against. Nothing in current law, however, prohibits me from endorsing or opposing political candidates in my own personal capacity.
Changing the law to repeal or weaken the “Johnson Amendment” — the section of the tax code that prevents tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates — would harm houses of worship, which are not identified or divided by partisan lines. Particularly in today’s political climate, engaging in partisan politics and issuing endorsements would be highly divisive and have a detrimental impact on congregational unity and civil discourse.
While atheist groups aren’t represented in that letter, the Secular Coalition for America and 10 of its member groups sent a letter to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations last July saying roughly the same thing (even though we don’t have houses of worship). The atheists also pointed out that the likely repeal would be problematic because it gives churches — but not secular non-profits — a way to endorse candidates without losing tax exempt status. In other words, this would be a potential lawsuit waiting to happen.
So will the repeal ever happen? The closer we get to the midterm elections, the less likely it becomes. Republicans have the opportunity to do just about anything they want legislatively, but they’ve been led by a disaster of a president — one with no vision and ever-changing ideas of what he’s supposed to do — and congressional leaders who simply aren’t good at their jobs.
It’s possible Trump could veto the final bill if the repeal isn’t in it. I doubt that’ll happen. Trump likes signing things, no matter how bad they are for everyone else. He wants to get things done regardless of substance.
I doubt the lack of a Johnson Amendment repeal in this particular bill will be enough for him to avoid signing it entirely.
(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier)