New Year, New Congress, Old Bill: Repealing The Ban On Pulpit Politicking Is Still A Bad Idea

It’s a new year and a new Congress, but a familiar piece of legislation already has darkened the door of the U.S. Capitol.

U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) wasted no time in resuming his efforts to roll back the prohibition on nonprofits endorsing or opposing political candidates. On Tuesday – the first day the 115th Congress was in session – Jones introduced H.R. 172 to “restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.”

Former president Lyndon B. Johnson was still a U.S. senator representing Texas when he spearheaded the move to amend the tax code to prevent nonprofit organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing specific political candidates.

The intent of the Johnson Amendment isn’t to hinder the free speech rights of faith leaders. Rather, its aim is to prevent tax-exempt organizations from operating like political action committees. After all, the mission of these groups is supposed to be public service, not partisan politics.

Not only does the amendment protect the integrity of our elections, but it protects the integrity of houses of worship by preventing a blurring of the lines between politics and faith.

But Jones doesn’t see it that way. With only one exception, he has introduced a bill in every session of Congress since 2001 that proposes to strike the Johnson Amendment from the tax code.

The text of Jones’ latest bill is not yet available, but there’s no reason to suspect it will be markedly different from H.R. 153, a bill with the same summary that he introduced along with fellow North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson in January 2015.

That bill proposed to remove from the tax code the language that stated a nonprofit should not participate or intervene in a political campaign on the behalf of, or in opposition to, a particular candidate. The bill also would have allowed nonprofits to publish campaign literature.

Typically Jones’ proposals regarding the Johnson Amendment wither and die on the vine, rarely getting beyond the initial referral to the Committee on Ways and Means, the House committee that oversees tax writing.

In 2002 during the first session in which Jones introduced what he then called the “Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act,” his proposal did come up for a vote by the full House. It failed in a fast-track, late-night voting attempt that required a two-thirds majority in order to pass. It did not garner even a simple majority of supporters.

People come to church for prayers, not political endorsements.

But allowing houses of worship to get more involved in partisan politics has become a cause célèbre of the Religious Right. President-elect Donald Trump made campaign promises that one of his first acts as president would be “knocking out” the Johnson Amendment, and Republicans included repealing the amendment in their 2016 party platform.

Jones’ bill was joined by two similar bills during the last session of Congress:

H.R. 6195, the “Free Speech Fairness Act,” was cosponsored by U.S. Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Jody B. Hice of Georgia. Their bill aimed to amend the tax code to state a nonprofit would not lose its tax-exempt status if it made political statements during the “ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose,” as long as those activities did not incur significant cost.

H.R. 6086, the “Protecting Religious Expression Against Censorship and Harassment Act of 2016,” was offered by U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). His bill addressed only houses of worship, saying they shouldn’t be considered as participating in political campaigns “because of the content, preparation, or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.” Lamborn’s bill also would have removed the Johnson Amendment’s enforcement provision.

To date, Scalise, Hice and Lamborn have not re-introduced their bills for the new session of Congress.

Additionally, AU opposed a provision U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) attached to the House Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill last year. It would prohibit the IRS from launching any investigations into churches that violate the Johnson Amendment unless the IRS Commissioner himself signs off on it and reports to Congress – making investigations unlikely to move forward and weakening the Johnson Amendment.

While leaders of the Religious Right are itching to get churches more involved in partisan politics, a hefty majority of people sitting in the pews don’t agree. Lifeway Research, a Nashville-based evangelical research firm, announced in September that 79 percent of the people they polled felt it was inappropriate for pastors to endorse political candidates during church services.

“Americans already argue about politics enough outside the church,” said Scott McConnell, LifeWay’s executive director. “They don’t want pastors bringing those arguments into worship.”

We agree, and AU will continue our efforts to keep partisan electioneering out of America’s pulpits.