WASHINGTON — Leave the Johnson Amendment intact was the message sent to Congress by American religious leaders from around the country.
Jointly organized by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), the protest letter and petition garnered over 4,000 signatures in support of keeping the nonprofit tax code provisions and restrictions. The recent action followed two other similar but separate letters sent in April – one by “99 national and state religious groups” and then another by “4,500 nonprofit organizations.”
As we reported in March, the Johnson Amendment is part of the IRS’ tax code that “prohibits political campaign activity” by nonprofit 501(c)(3) charities and churches. Since launching his bid for the presidency and well into his elected term, Donald Trump has repeatedly vowed to “repeal that language” or “completely destroy” that code in order to “protect free speech for all Americans.”
Trump’s alleged quest is in fact backed by the GOP. As stated in its official 2016 campaign platform:
Republicans believe the federal government, specifically the IRS, is constitutionally prohibited from policing or censoring speech based on religious convictions or beliefs, and therefore we urge the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.
Opponents to the code believe that it is unconstitutional because it limits freedom of speech by disallowing religious leaders and organizations from speaking out on political matters.
In February 2017, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) introduced to the house the Free Speech Fairness Act (H.R. 781). This act would not remove the Johnson Amendment, but it would offer “greater opportunity for nonprofit organizations to engage in political speech with regard to campaigns.”
Since its introduction, H.R.781 has been sitting in the House Ways and Means Committee with no forward movement.
However, a more recent bill is taking now taking an indirect shot at the Johnson Amendment by defunding the IRS’ ability to penalize nonprofit organizations that engage in the otherwise forbidden political speech. The house’s proposed government funding package, which originated in the Committee on Appropriations, is now up for consideration.
Within that bill, section 116 currently states that the provided funds cannot “be used by the Internal Revenue Service to make a determination that a church, an integrated auxiliary of a church, or a convention or association of churches is not exempt from taxation for participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office unless.”
Section 116, as written, is a “finance rider” that is buried within the proposed funding bill, which will set the spending budget through Sept. 2018.
If the bill passes as is, the IRS will be unable to use government funds to stop nonprofits from engaging in political actions or speech, even if the tax code itself is not altered. While the bill does not kill the Johnson Amendment, it makes it ineffective.
Over the summer, AU and BJC wrote and published their protest letter and asked religious leaders to join their action. The letter, which can be viewed on the website Faith Voices, begins:
As a leader in my religious community, I am strongly opposed to any effort to repeal or weaken current law that protects houses of worship from becoming centers of partisan politics. Changing the law would threaten the integrity and independence of houses of worship. We must not allow our sacred spaces to be transformed into spaces used to endorse or oppose political candidates.
By late August, Faith Voices garnered over 4,000 signatures from religious leaders around the country and from many different backgrounds and beliefs, including Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists. Shortly after reaching their goal of 4,000 signatures, AU and BJC sent the letter to Congress.
However, the organization now reports that the letter will be sent again, and are asking more religious leaders to step up and sign on. The organizations’ call to action reads:
The Trump administration has vowed to “totally destroy” this law. We know that faith leaders support the current law and want to keep their sanctuaries sacred. That is why we need you to sign this letter to tell Congress that you oppose repealing or weakening the law.
According to sources, the house’s funding package is scheduled to be reviewed in the coming week, but it is not expected to pass through the senate as written. How the various pieces are negotiated, what remains, and what stays is yet to be seen.
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To learn more about the Johnson Amendment, its history, and how it affects you, see our detailed report from March.