A Baptist church-state specialist criticized the latest attempt by Republican lawmakers to weaken a part of tax law called the Johnson Amendment that prohibits tax-exempt charities including churches from taking sides in political campaigns.
A House Ways and Means Committee proposal unveiled Nov. 2 adds language to the tax code allowing churches to make statements relating to political campaigns “in ordinary course of religious services and activities” as long as it does not involve a significant expenditure of funds.
Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said the bill headed for markup Nov. 6 would “deform, not reform, the tax law that protects our houses of worship.”
The measure is the latest in a series of attempts by lawmakers to fulfill President Donald Trump’s February pledge to “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a provision added to the tax code in 1954 that defines organizations which may be exempt from paying federal taxes as those which do not participate or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.
The new House bill adds a section to the IRS code clarifying that “the content of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings” does not ordinarily violate the politicking ban.
Political insiders say the change is a concession to social conservatives, including Christian conservatives who argue it restricts the rights of pastors and other religious leaders to speak freely without putting their church’s tax-exempt status at risk.
Tyler said the law protects churches from pressure from candidates seeking endorsements. Gutting it, she said, could threaten “to destroy our congregations from within over disagreements on partisan campaigns.”
“Under the current tax law, pastors speak truth to power and preach on moral issues, no matter how controversial,” she said in a statement. “This change has been pushed by a tiny minority and is opposed by the vast majority of Americans and churchgoers, across party lines and faith traditions.”
Tyler testified before Congress in May on the negative effects political endorsements would have on churches. Earlier the Baptist Joint Committee joined more than 100 other religious groups in lobbying lawmakers to resist attempts to weaken or repeal the Johnson Amendment. More than 4,200 individuals have signed a letter opposing repeal under an umbrella of sponsoring organizations known as Faith Voices in Support of Keeping Houses of Worship Non-partisan.
“Pastors and people of faith know that there’s nothing free about a pulpit that is bought and paid for by political campaign donations or beholden to partisan interests,” Tyler said Nov. 2.