Baptists were among 99 religious and denominational organizations April 4 urging members of Congress to maintain a law that prohibits churches and other tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
The Alliance of Baptists, American Baptist Churches USA, Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Baptist Women in Ministry, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, New Baptist Covenant and other Baptist groups joined the religiously and geographically diverse coalition opposing repeal of the so-called Johnson Amendment in an open letter.
Thirteen state and regional CBF organizations, the Baptist General Association of Virginia, Churchnet in Missouri, Texas Baptists Committed and Baptist-led Pastors for Texas Children joined the call, along with the historically African-American National Baptist Convention of America and Progressive National Baptist Convention.
Added to the tax code by then-senator and later President Lyndon Johnson, the rule prevents 501(c)(3) charities, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing political candidates as a condition of being tax exempt. President Trump has vowed to “totally destroy” the law, claiming it unfairly restricts the free speech of clergy.
Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said the broad section of America’s faith community doesn’t need or want a change in the tax law to pursue its mission.
“As soon as the church joins at the hip with a particular candidate or party, its prophetic witness — its ability to speak truth to power and not risk being co-opted by the government — is hindered,” said Tyler, an attorney and former aide to U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas).
Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and other faith groups joined Tyler and other Baptist leaders in the April 4 letter saying the current tax code safeguards the integrity of both charities and the system of campaign finance.
“Partisan politics have no place in our pulpits,” said Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “In fact, it’s the absence of that very thing — partisan politics — that gives us the power to speak with moral authority on issues of the day.”
The letter, being hand-delivered to congressional leaders today, said the current law does not restrict religious leaders from using their pulpits to address the moral and political issues of the day or endorsing candidates in their personal capacity. What it does do, the letter said, is simply prevent a group from being a tax-exempt ministry and a partisan political entity at the same time.
“The church’s calling is to be a pillar and bulwark of truth, not a political action committee,” said Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, editor of The Christian Citizen published by American Baptist Home Mission Societies, another member of the coalition. “Weakening or eliminating protections in current law compromises our ability to fulfill this calling.”
The letter said people of faith do not want partisan political fights infiltrating their houses of worship.
“The church should truly be a sanctuary from political party division,” said Terri Byrd, coordinator of the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “Although ministers do and should speak to issues that reflect on faith and justice, the mandate of not endorsing candidates and parties is essential to keeping our churches faithfully dedicated to God and God alone.”
The letter said permitting electioneering in churches would give partisan groups incentive to use congregations as a conduit for political activity and spending.
“The Johnson Amendment is so important to our country as we seek to live together in religious diversity and harmony,” said David Key, national board chair-elect of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. “It is also important to religious communities to keep them focused on their primary purpose and to not get distracted by the politics of the day.”
The 501(c)(3) is the most common type of 29 categories of nonprofit organizations operating under the United States Internal Revenue Code. It exempts entities created for religious, charitable, scientific, educational and specific other purposes from paying taxes because of their public service functions. Donors may deduct the amount of their gifts from their individual income taxes.
Political parties, campaign committees for candidates and political action committees are treated under a separate IRS category. They are subject to taxation and reporting requirements different from tax-exempt organizations.
“The charitable sector, particularly houses of worship, should not become another cog in a political machine or another loophole in campaign finance laws,” the letter said. “We strongly urge you to oppose any efforts to repeal or weaken protections in the law for 501(c)(3) organizations, including houses of worship.”