Last week, the US House Appropriations Committee rejected a proposal to remove a controversial rider from a spending bill that restricts enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. According to End Citizens United, a political action committee that advocates for campaign finance reform, the decision gives a green light for special interest groups to, “manipulate churches and funnel secret political money through the pulpit.”
The Johnson Amendment is a provision in the US tax code that forbids 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, which include most churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. It was proposed in 1954 by Lyndon B. Johnson, who was a senator of Texas at the time.
The amendment has long been a sore spot for some conservatives, which is why President Donald Trump made repealing it a campaign promise. Repealing the Johnson Amendment would require an act of Congress, which is hard to come by these days, so opponents of the rule are looking for other ways to undermine its enforcement.
Rather than outright repeal, house republicans have included a rider in a spending bill that forbids the IRS from using funds to investigate churches for violations of the Johnson Amendment. Exceptions can be made by the IRS commissioner, who must report to Congress about all such investigations. Despite attempts from opponents to remove the language from the bill, the committee voted 28-24 to keep the controversial rider.
How is the Johnson Amendment Enforced?
Churches and other similar nonprofit organizations can engage in some political activities, such as voter registration drives, but the Johnson Amendment forbids endorsements of specific parties or candidates. The amendment was famously invoked in 1992 when a church had its tax-exempt status revoked for taking out a full-page ad in USA Today that implored Christians to vote against then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton.
Today, however, the IRS rarely investigates churches for political activities, and some pastors don’t shy away from voicing their political opinions from the pulpit. Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative advocacy group, sponsors a campaign called Pulpit Freedom Sunday that encourages pastors to openly flout the law in protest. Although the IRS has audited at least one of the thousands of participating churches, no penalties have been issued. Nonetheless, the new language would make it almost impossible for the IRS to penalize churches for funneling money from their congregations to political campaigns.
What do Americans Think About the Johnson Amendment?
Among American voters, there isn’t an overwhelming consensus on the issue of religion in politics. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 66 percent of Americans are uncomfortable with the thought of churches endorsing candidates, but a vocal minority of conservative Christians believe that the Johnson Amendment restricts freedom of speech.
Some religious group are actually adamant about maintaining the Johnson Amendment. Dozens of nonprofit organizations including the Episcopal Church, the American Jewish Committee, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty co-signed a letter to the House Appropriations Committee voicing opposition to the measure.
“Weakening current law would allow politicians and others seeking political power to pressure churches for endorsements,” the letter states.
What do Experts say About the Johnson Amendment?
Charles Haynes, a religious freedom historian at Washington DC’s Newseum, told the Washington Post that the language, “puts a further chilling effect on any attempts by IRS staff to enforce the Johnson Amendment with respect to pulpit speech.” However, the problem doesn’t stop at speech.
“At its worst, the provision keeps IRS staff from doing its job to prevent charitable donations to flow to political campaigns,” Haynes says.
While the Johnson Amendment forbids any nonprofit group from endorsing candidates, the language in the spending bill specifically exempts religious organizations from such oversight. Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, told the Washington Post that giving religious organizations preferential treatment violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
Tiffany Muller, who is the President and Executive Director of End Citizens United, released a statement condemning the House Appropriation Committee for restricting enforcement of the Johnson Amendment.
“The Johnson Amendment has been critical to ensuring churches and charities can carry out their missions free from manipulation of Big Money special interests and partisan politics,” said Muller. “Today, extreme House Republicans approved a rider in a must-pass bill that leaves churches vulnerable to being used as tools of political mega-donors looking to push their agenda.”
About End Citizens United
End Citizens United was founded in 2015 to counter the effects of the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case that allowed corporations to make unlimited undisclosed donations to political candidates. It uses grassroots tactics to support candidates who are committed to reforming campaign finance law. By raising awareness of the issue of money in politics, End Citizens United advocates for legislation that will limit the flow of dark money to campaigns.