By Valerie Ploumpis, National Policy Director
In 1954, then-Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson introduced an amendment to a tax bill that limited the political activities of nonprofit organizations, including churches, schools, hospitals, foundations and charities registered under a 501(c)(3) charter. The amendment was narrowly written – such institutions were prohibited from endorsing candidates or political parties, but were permitted to host candidate forums, hold voter registration drives, urge congregants to vote, and transport people to the polls. In addition, faith leaders were legally permitted to endorse candidates in their personal capacity or run for office themselves.
Until the 2016 campaign season, few beyond the religious right questioned this ban on overt political activities by churches and other tax-exempt entities. But when President Trump acted on campaign promises to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment by issuing an Executive Order directing the IRS not to penalize clergy for political speech, the issue became a live wire, both legislatively and administratively.
Why Equality California Opposes the Repeal of the Johnson Amendment
There are approximately 1.5 million registered 501(c)(3) nonprofits in the US, including Habitat for Humanity, the YWCA, Feeding America, and thousands of other national, state and community-based organizations, many of which are houses of worship. If the Johnson Amendment were repealed, far-right billionaire donors would be able to anonymously shift their political activities to churches. Their “dark money” could then be funneled directly into politics – and donors would receive a charitable tax deduction.
America’s political system is already awash with campaign money that cannot be traced which is why Equality California sent a letter to the entire California Congressional delegation today, urging them to vote against any measure that would repeal the Johnson Amendment.
Repealing the Johnson Amendment would essentially put Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited money to support or oppose candidates, on steroids. The amounts of dark money are potentially huge, as evidenced in this assessment by the Joint Commission on Taxation (page 7, Section IV-c1) which calculates that in 2018 alone, a repeal of the Johnson Amendment could channel $2.1 billion into churches, and swell to a jaw-dropping $9 billion by 2022.
As a practical matter, damage has already been done to the existing membrane between religion and politics — Trump’s Executive Order in May 2017 signaled that the IRS would not strip churches of their tax-exempt status, even if they endorse political candidates and parties from the pulpit. But dismantling the Johnson Amendment altogether would lead to a flood of unaccountable and non-transparent money into politics.
Pending legislation and Proposed Tax Changes
Republican-sponsored bills, the ‘Free Speech Fairness Act’ (HR 781, sponsored by Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise in the House and its identical counterpart in the Senate, S 264, sponsored by Oklahoma Senator Lankford), would allow 501(c)(3) institutions to “make certain statements related to a political campaign without losing tax-exempt status.”
This stand-alone legislation is unlikely to move, even in the Republican-controlled Congress. Nearly 100 House Members signed an October 10, 2017 letter to oppose a repeal of the Johnson Amendment.
Moreover, many faith leaders, including some evangelical Christians, oppose a repeal because they do not wish their churches to be roiled by politics or seen as partisan tools used by political campaigns and candidates. Many religious and denominational organizations have warned Congress that weakening current law would allow politicians and others seeking political power to pressure them for endorsements and divide their congregations.
But what might not be advance legislatively, may be possible to achieve administratively.
During Congressional discussions about FY2018 IRS appropriations, two Democratic Members, Rep. Barbara Lee (CA-13) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (FL-23), offered an amendment that would have stripped Johnson Amendment repeal language. Their effort failed by a vote of 24-28, of which two votes were cast by California Republicans David Valadao (CA-21) and Ken Calvert (CA-42).
The Johnson Amendment repeal is now embedded in the GOP tax bill pending in the House. Civil rights icon Rep John Lewis (D-GA-5) sought to single out churches as tax-exempt but his amendment too fell short by a party-line vote of 16-23. California Republican Member Devin Nunes (CA-22) voted against the Lewis amendment. As of now, therefore, the Johnson Amendment repeal remains in the House tax bill, but whether or not it eventually passes and is subsequently included in the Senate’s version is uncertain.
Equality California remains strongly opposed to any effort to repeal or weaken the Johnson Amendment.
ACLU letter – https://www.aclu.org/blog/religious-liberty/government-promotion-religion/congress-wants-let-churches-play-partisan
A rolling letter signed by 4,200 (to date) faith leaders calling to keep their houses of worship non-partisan: https://www.faith-voices.org/
A rolling letter signed by 5,000 (to date) nonprofits calling to keep the communities of charities and foundations non-partisan: https://www.givevoice.org/community-letter-signers