New Bill Would Gut Johnson Amendment for Churches

File Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, January 31, 2016. REUTERS/Scott Morgan/File Photo

During the campaign, Trump courted the Evangelical vote by promising to repeal the Johnson Amendment. Pastors have long argued it puts undue restrictions on their free speech, and the Republicans have agreed with them. However, they are already allowed to promote policies, lobby, and host political figures in their churches as long as they do not show any favoritism towards a specific candidate.

In May, Trump signed an Executive Order that took away some of the IRS’s power to enforce the law, although it was limited. It directed the IRS to scrutinize how it enforced the provision. Organizations that violate the Amendment risk losing their tax exempt status. “Today my administration is leading by example as we take historic steps to protect religious liberty in the United States of America,” Trump said in a Rose Garden ceremony. “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.”

What is the Johnson Amendment? It is a law written into the tax code that bars all tax exempt organizations from donating to or campaigning on behalf of specific political candidates. Because churches are tax exempt, and therefore members’ donations to churches are considered charitable donations, this prevents tax deductible monies from going through the church – as a conduit – to candidates. This could allow churches to turn into virtually unregulated Super PACs. The law was introduced by then Senator Lyndon Johnson, enacted in the 1950’s, and the IRS is tasked with enforcing it.

The new House language, included in Section 116 of the House’s Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018, wouldn’t repeal the amendment. But it would block funding to the IRS for carrying out investigations of churches suspected of breaking the no-campaigning rules, unless such probes are approved by the IRS commissioner and Congress is notified. After approval, the IRS would be able to launch an inquiry only several months later.

Nicholas Little, vice president and general counsel of the secular advocacy group Center for Inquiry, worries the proposal would essentially make it “impossible for the IRS to investigate a church.” He notes the language in the legislation very specifically singles out churches—“It doesn’t say church or mosque or synagogue or temples,” he says—which pretty clearly indicates the targets Republicans have in mind. (Newsweek)

Many pastors already ignore this bill, and the IRS rarely uses its power to investigate it. With the limited resources it has, and with the government continuing to cut those back, it is not the most effective use of its time or money. But this particular legislation appears to favor religion over other charitable organizations, and protestant churches over other types of religious organizations.

According to a 2016 Pew Center Research survey, 66% of Americans are opposed to churches endorsing candidates. LifeWay, a Christian polling firm, found in 2015 that 79 percent of Americans thought clergy should not endorse candidates during worship services. Evangelicals were more likely to say pastors should be able to do so — 25 percent compared to 16 percent — but support for clergy endorsements was low across the board. (WaPo)

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