President Donald Trump delivered remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., Feb. 2. In many ways, the speech was typical of Trump: It was bombastic and petty. At one point, Trump went so far as to insult Arnold Schwarzenegger because ratings for “The Apprentice,” Trump’s old reality TV show, are down since the action-film star and former California governor took over as host.
But then Trump shifted gears and announced that he plans to attack a federal law that bars tax-exempt non-profits, including houses of worship, from intervening in partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates.
“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” Trump vowed.
The law in question is often called the Johnson Amendment for its sponsor, then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas). Johnson added it to the tax code in 1954 in part because two foundations were trying to unseat him. The foundations were tax-exempt, and Johnson didn’t think they should be able to enjoy this benefit while behaving in a partisan manner.
Contrary to what some on the Religious Right believe, Johnson was not singling out houses of worship. Many different types of organizations hold 501(c)(3) status, named for the provision of the tax code that provides tax exemption. They all fall under the ban.
The amendment has served the country well. Tax-exempt organizations are supposed to serve the public good and provide some type of benefit to society. A focus on partisan, electoral politics falls far short of that goal. Groups that want to engage in that sort of activity come under another category – political action committees.
It’s also worth remembering that tax exemption is a very desirable benefit. As such, it comes with conditions. The ban on partisan politics is only one of them. Any house of worship or secular non-profit that finds the ban too onerous can give up tax exemption.
Trump’s proposal, should it ever become law, would fundamentally change the nature of non-profit groups and houses of worship in America. It would shift their focus away from public service and put it on partisan politics. It would also create a huge new loophole in campaign-finance law. Some of the proposals pending in Congress would go so far as to allow tax-exempt groups to funnel money into the coffers of candidates.
It’s a bad deal all around. Thankfully, the American people don’t support repealing the Johnson Amendment. Polls show strong opposition to this misguided idea. If you agree, now is the time to speak up.