As we mentioned earlier today on this blog, yesterday was “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an annual event during which Religious Right groups try to persuade religious leaders to break federal law by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
Key to this is the Johnson Amendment, a provision of the federal tax code that prohibits tax-exempt, non-profit organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. The provision protects the integrity of houses of worship and the integrity of our elections by making sure that tax-exempt organizations aren’t turned into super PACs that funnel money into elections.
The Johnson Amendment, named for then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) who sponsored it in 1954, is a good law that the American people support. Nonetheless, we have seen a renewed energy to repeal it this election season. Not only has presidential candidate Donald Trump repeatedly called for the amendment’s repeal and inserted it into the Republican Party official platform, but now there’s a new slew of congressional efforts to roll back the Johnson Amendment under the guise of protecting houses of worships’ freedom of speech.
Since 2005, U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) has repeatedly introduced a bill to repeal the Johnson Amendment. This Congress is no different: In January 2015 he introduced HR 153, but it has failed to gain traction.
For the last several months, we have been fighting to remove a provision U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) attached to the House Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill. It would prohibit the Internal Revenue Service from launching any investigations into churches that violate the Johnson Amendment unless the IRS Commissioner himself signs off on it and reports to Congress. This would make investigations unlikely to move forward, thus severely weakening the Johnson Amendment.
If some legislators have their way, the road to election may run through houses of worship.
In just the last two weeks, however, two new bills have been introduced. They are inspired by this year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The two new bills are:
* HR 6086, introduced by U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), which would repeal the Johnson Amendment as it applies to houses of worship specifically and remove the amendment’s enforcement provision.
* HR 6195, introduced by U.S. Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Jody Hice (R-Ga.) to allow churches and other non-profits the ability to make statements endorsing or opposing candidates, as long as it occurs in the ordinary course of carrying out their tax-exempt purpose and it doesn’t create more than a de minimis (very minor) expense.
To say that these attempts are misguided is an understatement. The narrative that opponents of the Johnson Amendment have crafted is that it curtails freedom of speech and censors religious leaders. But this is simply untrue. Houses of worship – and all tax-exempt non-profits – have the ability to speak out about political issues; they simply cannot endorse or oppose political candidates or parties. And, pastors and other religious leaders can engage in partisan politics in their own individual capacity. They just cannot do so when acting on behalf of their tax-exempt organization.
Find out more about the Johnson Amendment and why its repeal would threaten separation of church and state. Visit Project Fair Play to read up on our talking points and find out how you can take action.