In advance of Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast, 145 organizations called on Congress to reject attempts to weaken a rule that bars churches receiving tax-exempt status from engaging in partisan politics.
The Alliance of Baptists, American Baptist Churches USA, American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, Baptist Center for Ethics, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Baptist Women in Ministry, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and New Baptist Covenant are all among signers to an open letter opposing language limiting enforcement of the so-called Johnson Amendment in funding legislation currently being negotiated in Congress.
The 10 Baptist groups and others say the Johnson Amendment protects the integrity of 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations by ensuring they do not endorse or oppose candidates. Weakening the ban, they say, “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.”
“Americans do not want our charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations to be torn apart by partisan campaign politics,” the letter says.
During last year’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump announced plans to “get rid of and totally destroy” the regulation viewed as uncontroversial since its adoption in 1954 until recently, when the Religious Right began calling it a violation of a preacher’s right to speak freely from the pulpit.
Groups like the Baptist Joint Committee, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and others, say the rule grants tax-exempt organizations wide latitude to speak out on political and social issues, educate and register voters, drive people to the polls, lobby on specific legislation and invite candidates to speak but not to function as political action committees.
“Houses of worship and nonprofits serve their communities, and they don’t want to be partisan cheerleaders who can bankroll campaigns,” said BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler.
“Thousands of faith leaders and nonprofits continue to tell Congress that they want to keep the Johnson Amendment’s protections that have been in place for decades,” Tyler said. “Undermining it would expose houses of worship and all 501(c)(3) organizations to pressure from candidates seeking endorsements and would fundamentally change their character.”
“President Trump has made it very clear that he is carrying out the agenda of a few Religious Right leaders who are the president’s most ardent supporters,” said Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United. “But Americans, including the vast majority of faith leaders, do not want their congregations and charitable nonprofits divided by the corrosive influence of partisan politics.”
The letter asks leaders in both houses of Congress to disallow language in the House 2018 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill making it harder for the IRS to investigate claims that churches have violated the law. The section applies only to churches, the signers say, raising “serious concerns” under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The groups “firmly urge” legislators to oppose the section “or any other language that would weaken the law that prevents houses of worship and other charitable nonprofits from engaging in political endorsements” to the 2018 funding plan.
A final tax bill signed in December left the Johnson Amendment intact, but observers expect efforts to weaken it to continue in the next year.
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