Christian churches are one step closer to becoming fundraising arms of the Republican Party thanks to a spending bill passed by the U.S. House this week.
The $1.2 trillion “megabus” appropriations spending bill, which passed on a 211-198 vote this Thursday, includes a provision gutting the Johnson Amendment, which forbids places of worship from endorsing political candidates if they want to keep their tax exempt status.
Donald Trump signed an executive order this past May that supposedly weakened the amendment, telling the IRS to look the other way when informed of violations, but it wasn’t a law and it didn’t have much teeth to it. Plus, the IRS was already looking the other way in most of these cases. The agency wasn’t enforcing its own rules.
The appropriations bill just passed by the House, however, is much stronger. Section 116 of the “2018 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill” forbids the IRS from devoting a single penny to investigating claims of those violations — unless the IRS commissioner signs off on it, informs two congressional committees, and waits 90 days to act.
The irony here is that thousands and thousands of religious leaders don’t want this to happen. They’ve signed a letter urging Congress to keep the Johnson Amendment in place.
Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines. The prophetic role of faith communities necessitates that we retain our independent voice. Current law respects this independence and strikes the right balance: houses of worship that enjoy favored tax-exempt status may engage in advocacy to address moral and political issues, but they cannot tell people who to vote for or against. Nothing in current law, however, prohibits me from endorsing or opposing political candidates in my own personal capacity.
Changing the law to repeal or weaken the “Johnson Amendment” — the section of the tax code that prevents tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates — would harm houses of worship, which are not identified or divided by partisan lines. Particularly in today’s political climate, engaging in partisan politics and issuing endorsements would be highly divisive and have a detrimental impact on congregational unity and civil discourse.
While atheist groups aren’t represented in that letter, the Secular Coalition for America and 10 of its member groups sent a letter to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations in July saying roughly the same thing (even though we don’t have houses of worship). The atheists also pointed out that the proposed repeal was problematic because it gave churches — but not secular non-profits — a way to endorse candidates without losing tax exempt status. In other words, this is a potential lawsuit waiting to happen.
According to the Secular Coalition for America’s Executive Director Larry T. Decker,
“… The only supporters of this crusade against the Johnson Amendment are a select few Members of Congress who are doing the bidding of the fringe leaders of the religious right. The Secular Coalition for America will not stand by while the integrity of our political system is comprised for the benefit of religious fundamentalists who want to engage in partisan electioneering on the taxpayer’s dime.”
“The lawmakers leading the effort to gut the Johnson Amendment claim they are doing so on behalf of the religious community,” said Decker. “This is demonstrably untrue. The majority of faith leaders know the Johnson Amendment protects their houses of worship from becoming cogs in the political machine. Americans of all faiths and none are speaking up together in defense of the Johnson Amendment. Now, it’s time for Members of Congress to listen.”
So what happens now? This bill doesn’t just get handed off to the Senate now. It’s a little more complicated than that, as the SCA’s spokesperson Casey Brescia explained to me in an email:
Theoretically it would go to the Senate but what typically happens is the House and the Senate pass their own versions of Appropriations bills and then they go into conference committee where a handful of appropriators from the House and the Senate hammer out differences between the two versions, come to an agreement, and then the House and Senate both vote on the “reconciled” bill. The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet introduced their version of the Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) appropriations bill.
We don’t know if the Senate’s version of this bill will include the Johnson Amendment repeal, and we don’t know if the House’s language will be kept during the reconciliation process. But this is the closest Republicans have come in years to turning churches into regular campaign stops — and fundraisers — for politicians.
While many right-wing pastors might welcome that opportunity, many more liberal pastors understand that they would be turning their churches into political battlegrounds and turning away from the message of the Gospel. They don’t want to see the Johnson Amendment repealed either.