Wrap-up: What Happened With The Tax Bills And Church-State Separation This Week

Two tax bills wended their way through Congress this week and their passage could have huge implications for church-state separation. Both the House and Senate bills are called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, but they are very different from one another.

Yesterday, the House adopted its version of the bill, which has serious church-state implications. Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee voted to move its bill forward for a debate by the full Senate. Thankfully, the Senate bill does not currently contain the same troubling provisions as the House bill.

Here’s a recap of what the bills do and where they are in the process:

The House Bill

The House’s version of the bill contains two provisions that threaten religious freedom. First, the bill would transform 529 college accounts into a private school voucher-like program. It would provide tax breaks for families to send their children to private, religious schools. Congress should be finding ways to fund our public schools, not finding new ways to send money to private religious schools.

Second, language in the bill would gut the Johnson Amendment by allowing all tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, to endorse candidates. This would upend the entire charitable sector, but it has particular implications for religious freedom, as it would turn houses of worship into tools of political campaigns and candidates and divide them along party lines.

Congress is considering language in its tax bills that could have huge implications for church-state separation.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) offered an amendment to strip the provision that would undermine the Johnson Amendment, but it was rejected on a party-line vote. The bill, with the problematic language, was then adopted by the House committee and passed on the House floor.

The majority of Americans – both Republican and Democrat – support keeping the current law in place. Additionally, 4,200 faith leaders, 106 religious and denominational organizations and 5,500 nonprofit organizations urged Congress not to repeal or weaken the Johnson Amendment. And this is not surprising, as the law protects the integrity of all houses or worship, charitable nonprofits, and foundations from being used as political tools, and from being torn apart by partisan campaign politics. By passing a bill that would essentially repeal the Johnson Amendment, members of the House have ignored the will of the people.

The Senate Bill

Fortunately, the Senate’s version of the bill does not contain language to weaken or repeal the Johnson Amendment or include the provision to expand 529 savings accounts into a voucher-like program. But there were two attempts to add voucher-like programs to the bill during the Senate Finance Committee markup. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) filed an amendment to create a federal tuition tax credit program, which is a form of a backdoor voucher program. And Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) filed an amendment to provide tax breaks solely for families that send their children to religious schools. Luckily, neither of these amendments were brought to a vote, and both remain out of the bill.

What’s Next

The Senate bill will travel to the floor for a vote. We need you to tell your Senators that you don’t want them to include harmful language in the bill that would create vouchers or undermine the Johnson Amendment.  You can take action here on vouchers and here on the Johnson Amendment.