If there’s one thing that most people understand about the United States, it’s that it was founded on the principle of the separation of church and state. It has been this way since the dawn of this country, but now it’s at serious risk of being stripped away. At this very moment, conservative members of Congress are working feverishly to slip through a rider that will effectively strip the Johnson Amendment of its powers. This law is the one that specifically forbids tax-exempt non-profit organizations, including churches, from actively campaigning for political candidates. End Citizens United recently issued a press release urging Congress not to allow this to happen.
Few people were even aware of the Johnson Amendment until the 2016 presidential campaign season got into full swing. Republican candidate Donald Trump made repealing the amendment one of his top campaign promises. This promise went over many people’s heads, as they were unaware of the significance. However, those for whom Trump truly works–the wealthiest people in the country–were well aware, and it was music to their ears. Should the Johnson Amendment be repealed, there will be no stopping people from donating indiscriminately to religious organizations–and those religious organizations can then turn around and funnel the money wherever they’d like it to go.
Why is End Citizens United front and center in this battle? The grassroots organization, which was founded to fight back against the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010, sees this move as an attempt to further solidify the power of corporations and the extremely wealthy. In its press release, Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, stated, “The House Republican’s tax plan includes the terrible decision to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which can turn churches into tools for secret campaign spending.”
To understand why the repeal of the Johnson Amendment would be a true disaster for democracy in America, it helps to understand how much money is at stake. In the year 2015 alone, Americans donated more than $119 billion to religious organizations. To put that into perspective, the total cost of the 2016 election–the most expensive in history–was around $6.5 billion. The implication here is that should the amendment be gutted, a significant chunk of that $119 billion could find its way into the campaign coffers of conservative candidates–candidates who have been bought and paid for by the powers that be.
Although the Johnson Amendment has been in conservatives’ crosshairs for some time, it caused no controversy whatsoever when it was enacted in the mid-1950s. The amendment was proposed by then U.S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. He was inspired to champion the law after being attacked and accused of being a communist by non-profit religious groups. Noting that these 501(c)(3) organizations, as they are known, enjoy tax-free status, Johnson believed that they had an unfair advantage. Given that the country was founded on the concept of the separation of church and state, it seemed logical to enact this kind of law.
The Johnson Amendment has historically been more of a preventative measure than a punitive one. The mere existence of the law–and the threat of being stripped of tax-exempt status by the IRS–ensured that most toed the line. Still, some have deliberately flouted the law through the years, stating that it restricted pastors’ and others’ right to free speech. In fact, a movement called Pulpit Freedom Sounding, which is organized by the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, encourages churches and other groups to actively thumb their nose at the law. Even so, very few organizations have actually faced penalties because of it.
How exactly are Republicans working to do away with the Johnson Amendment? Not surprisingly, they are being pretty sneaky about it. Rather than blatantly attempt to repeal the law, they have attached it to various other pieces of legislation in the hopes of getting it passed without too much oversight. Language stripping the law of much of its power was included in the House Financial Services appropriations bill earlier this fall. More recently, a rider was added to the huge tax bill. It forbids the IRS from using funds to investigate violations of the Johnson Amendment, which means that the law is basically useless.
If the general public really understood what was at stake with the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, there would surely be a lot more fuss being made. However, public sentiment regarding the separation of church and state is surprisingly muddled. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2016, 66 percent of Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of religion in politics. That’s a comfortable majority, of course, but it suggests that a large percentage of people are fine with it–and that is a problem.
Despite the perception that all religious organizations are welcoming the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, the reality is that plenty of them oppose this move too. In fact, more than 100 such organizations have joined End Citizens United in its efforts to prevent the repeal of this incredibly important law. The repeal of this 63-year-old law would undoubtedly open the floodgates, allowing organizations to funnel tax-free contributions to political campaigns. As if that’s not alarming enough, those who made donations in this way would conceivably enjoy tax breaks, as such donations are typically deductible. In this way, the very wealthy will be double-dipping and enjoying yet aother unfair advantage over the public at large.
As dire as things seem at this time, groups like End Citizens United are closely monitoring the situation and mobilizing to fight back. Ideally, of course, the Republicans will fail in their objective. Should they prevail, ECU and other groups will have to work even harder to get their candidates elected. This will mean a lot more work, of course, since it will mean undoing a lot of damage. Although President Trump signed an executive order back in May, the battle is far from over. By supporting End Citizens United, citizens can help to take their country back.