As part of the final push to enact tax reform before the end of the year, a proposed tax code change that would permit churches and other non-profit organizations to engage in partisan political campaigning has been dropped from the House and Senate reconciliation version of 2017 tax bill. Although the House version of the bill had included a repeal of the controversial Johnson Amendment, the Senate version kept it intact. Proponents of the repeal have argued for the right of pastors to speak freely about candidates from the pulpit, and opponents claim it would provide a “dark money” tax-exempt way to launder otherwise non-tax deductible campaign donations.
Early Saturday morning, the U.S. Senate passed its version of a major tax bill. Although there are a number of indirect ramifications for religious institutions, the Senate bill keeps the Johnson Amendment intact.
Last Thursday, President Donald Trump marked the National Day of Prayer with an executive order that at most expressed the administration’s desire that the Department of the Treasury should not unnecessarily threaten the tax-exempt status of religious non-profit organizations if they engage in political activity. Despite stating during the campaign that he would “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, the administration ultimately made a benign gesture affirming existing law while describing its parameters and limits.
By Gregory W. Hamilton – Repealing the Johnson Amendment is not about “free speech.” It is about giving politicians tax-deductible donations and endorsements in return for power.
Contrary to Trump’s representation, the voices of individual church members, or even church employees, have not “been taken away.” Instead, they may independently advocate for or against any candidates of their choosing, but they cannot use their houses of worship as vehicles for doing so.
As it now stands, churches and charities are welcome to speak truth to power on the issues that matter – from opposing human trafficking, to lobbying for workplace accommodation for religious employees, to pursuing justice. Religious organizations just cannot support or oppose particular candidates or political parties. This is a good thing.