Bad Idea: Trump Repeats Call To Let Churches Endorse Candidates

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump reiterated his desire to change a federal law that prohibits houses of worship from endorsing candidates during his speech last night at the Republican National Convention (RNC).  

Trump said:

“At this moment, I would like to thank the evangelical community who have been so good to me and so supportive. You have so much to contribute to our politics, yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits.

“An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson, many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views.

“I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans.”

Donald Trump wants to change the federal tax code so churches can endorse candidates.

Unfortunately, Trump doesn’t understand the nuance of the Johnson Amendment. To say that churches cannot “openly advocate their political views” is not accurate.

In 1954, then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson championed an amendment to the federal tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profits – not just churches – from endorsing or opposing candidates for political office. If they do not follow this rule, they risk paying a fine or losing their tax exemption.

The rule does not, however, stop 501(c)(3) groups from discussing candidates and their positions, nor does it stop houses of worship from advocating for or against legislation and ballot initiatives. Pastors are even allowed to endorse candidates as long as they make clear their endorsement is personal and they do not use the resources of their church to help or hurt specific politicians. Given all that, the free speech of churches is hardly threatened.

That Trump called for a repeal of the Johnson Amendment last night is no surprise since he has called for its repeal previously, plus the official Republican Party platform seeks the end of church endorsement restrictions.

Where did this push come from? While we don’t know for sure, an early Trump adopter from the evangelical community has long opposed the Johnson Amendment. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, complained again last night during his RNC address that “conservative universities and churches have been investigated” by the IRS while liberal groups get a free pass. That isn’t exactly true, either.

Of course Falwell wants the amendment done away with – he’s a repeat violator.

As the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United said earlier this week, the Republican plan could cause tremendous damage to religion in the United States.

“The Republican platform seeks to turn America’s houses of worship into miniature political action committees,” Lynn said. “I can’t imagine a more disruptive idea for our nation’s religious community or a real impediment to campaign finance reform.”

Added Lynn: “Religious communities are places Americans can go to escape the partisan divide of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ that has polarized our nation,” Lynn said. “Repealing the ‘no-politicking’ rule would inevitably lead some houses of worship to focus on supporting candidates in exchange for financial and other aid.”

But Trump’s proposal isn’t the only active threat to the Johnson Amendment. The issue is currently under consideration in Congress. Republicans in the House of Representatives have added a rider to an appropriations bill (H.R. 5485) that would make it harder for the IRS to enforce the Johnson Amendment.

As long as the Johnson Amendment remains on the books, Americans United’s Project Fair Play will work to educate Americans about the law banning partisan activity by houses of worship and religious non-profits and urges religious leaders to comply with these provisions.

We’re also pushing the IRS to more aggressively enforce the prohibition against church endorsements because the agency has been lax in this area lately. If you agree that the IRS must keep houses or worship from becoming political action committees, please sign our petition.