Once Again, House Republicans Are Trying to Repeal the Johnson Amendment December 12, 2018

Once Again, House Republicans Are Trying to Repeal the Johnson Amendment

Republicans’ attempts to repeal the Johnson Amendment aren’t over yet.

For more than two years now, Donald Trump has promised the Religious Right that he would sign a repeal of the rule that forbids places of worship from endorsing political candidates if they want to keep their tax exempt status. If he were to rescind it, Christian churches would be one step closer to essentially becoming fundraising arms of the Republican Party. We have no idea how much dark money would start flowing to campaigns via churches when that day arrives.

Those efforts began right after Trump took office, when he signed an executive order claiming to repeal the rule… but it had no teeth. It was more of a performance than anything substantive.

Since then, Republicans have attempted to do the job legislatively by putting the repeal into various spending bills… to no avail. Last March, they tried to insert the repeal in an omnibus spending bill. But when the $1.3 trillion bill was finally released, the Johnson Amendment repeal wasn’t included. (More specifically, there was no language prohibiting the IRS from using its time and money to go after churches that violate the rule by telling the congregation who to vote for.) They tried again in July with an appropriations bill… and it failed again.

Even after an election night drubbing, they haven’t stopped trying. House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady released his year-end tax legislation (HR 88), and buried on p. 142 is yet another repeal of the Johnson Amendment.

(1) IN GENERAL. — For purposes of subsection (c)(3) and sections 170(c)(2), 2055, 2106, 2522, and 4955, an organization shall not fail to be treated as organized and operated exclusively for a purpose described in subsection (c)(3), nor shall it be deemed to have participated in, or intervened in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, solely because of the content of any statement which —

(A) is made in the ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose, and

(B) results in the organization incurring not more than de minimis incremental expenses…

It’s a fancy way of saying that if a pastor tells you to vote for or not to vote for a particular candidate during a regularly scheduled sermon, there will be no punishment for it. That’s not a free speech issue; it’s a law that would turn all non-profit groups, including churches, into partisan ones.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation said this bill would “allow churches to become unaccountable, unregulated super PACs through which dark political money will flow.” They urged people to contact their members of Congress in opposition to this part of the bill.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State reminded everyone that there’s interfaith opposition to this repeal.

“House leadership is trying to ram through language in any bill they can before they give up the gavel in January and it will become much harder for them to repeal the Johnson Amendment,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “We are fighting this battle on multiple fronts because some members of Congress are catering to the Religious Right’s agenda to boost their own political power by breaking down the wall between religion and government.”

“Not only is there broad public support for the Johnson Amendment, the faith community strongly opposes repealing the law as well,” Laser said. “Thousands of faith leaders across a wide range of religions have said gutting the Johnson Amendment would harm their houses of worship and are speaking out in defense of its protections. It’s time for Congress to start listening.”

Laser is right about that. Thousands and thousands of religious leaders don’t want to see the rule repealed. They’ve already signed a letter urging Congress to keep the Johnson Amendment in place. They want politics out of religion. They understand that they’re already free to speak about issues that matter to them, but they have no desire to tell their congregations who to vote for.

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 last year saying roughly the same thing (even though we don’t have houses of worship).

(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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