U.S. lawmakers are using a new spending bill to target the Johnson Amendment to the IRS code that effectively bars nonprofits like churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Many pastors believe the laws have a chilling effect on their free speech because they want to endorse candidates that align with their own agendas.
The new proposed language would most likely prevent the IRS from using its funds and staffing to investigate churches, but not other non-profits, for endorsing candidates from the pulpit, or financially supporting political campaigns, giving preference to churches over others tax-exempt organizations.
Though U.S. President Donald Trump has targeted the Johnson Amendment, as a part of his pitch to religious conservatives, the amendment is law and repealing it would take an act of Congress.
Instead of repealing the Johnson Amendment, the bill would require the IRS commissioner, who must report to Congress, to sign off on an investigation. The language in the bill is clearly an effort to gut the Johnson Amendment as applied to churches, said Charles Haynes, a religious freedom expert at the Newseum. “At the very least, this provision puts a further chilling effect on any attempts by IRS staff to enforce the Johnson Amendment with respect to pulpit speech — the part of the amendment that conservative churches have most opposed,” Haynes said. “At its worst, the provision keeps IRS staff from doing its job to prevent charitable donations to flow to political campaigns.”
Several religious groups sent a letter that voiced opposition to the measure to key leaders in Congress. “Weakening current law would allow politicians and others seeking political power to pressure churches for endorsements, dividing congregations and opening them up to the flow of secret money,” the letter from about 40 organizations states. The Episcopal Church, the American Jewish Committee, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty are among the groups listed on the letter.
“If this measure is enacted, officeholders might find ways to subtly pressure houses of worship (by delaying grants of zoning permits, for example) until endorsements are made,” said Melissa Rogers, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “That’s illegal, but it could be hard to stop if measures like this one are enacted.”
The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution bars the government from favoring religious viewpoints when handing out tax subsidies and benefits. It is possible that the proposed law would allow administrations to pick and choose which churches to deny tax-exempt status based on whether a church is perceived to be supportive of the policies of a Democratic administration or a Republican administration.
Modifying the Johnson Amendment is actually a huge threat to religious liberty. As churches get more political power, they will use it to drive religious laws into American culture.
“The dignitaries of church and state will unite to bribe, persuade, or compel all classes to honor the Sunday. The lack of divine authority will be supplied by oppressive enactments. Political corruption is destroying love of justice and regard for truth; and even in free America, rulers and legislators, in order to secure public favor, will yield to the popular demand for a law enforcing Sunday observance. Liberty of conscience, which has cost so great a sacrifice, will no longer be respected.” The Great Controversy, Page 592.
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