A Baptist church-state specialist says language in a House spending bill limiting the ability of the Internal Revenue Service to deny tax-exempt status for violating a ban on endorsing candidates makes churches easy prey for political campaigns hunting for votes.
Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, lamented last Thursday’s vote in the House Appropriations Committee retaining a rider weakening the so-called Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law named after then senator and future president Lyndon Johnson distinguishing non-profit charities, including churches, from other groups with missions that are primarily political.
“In the name of protecting the church from the IRS and without any evidence of an overreaching bureaucracy, the Appropriations Committee acted today to expose the garden of the church to the woolly wilderness of partisan campaigning,” said Tyler, who earlier submitted a letter of testimony urging lawmakers to remove consideration of the Johnson Amendment from the spending bill.
The 253-page House Financial Services and General Government FY2018 Appropriations bill stops short of President Trump’s promise in February to “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, but it does make it harder to enforce.
Section 116 prevents the IRS from spending money “to make a determination that a church, an integrated auxiliary of a church, or a convention or association of churches is not exempt from taxation for participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office” without personal consent of the IRS commissioner, reporting to both houses of Congress and a waiting period.
Tyler, an attorney, said the bill “gives candidates and campaign donors a green light to press churches for their endorsements and possibly their tax-deductible offerings, too.”
On July 12 the Baptist Joint Committee, Alliance of Baptists, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Baptist Women in Ministry, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and New Baptist Covenant were among 108 organizations opposing the provision they said makes it “effectively impossible” to enforce the endorsement ban.
“The Johnson Amendment protects the integrity of tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, by ensuring they do not endorse or oppose candidates,” the nonprofit and religious organizations said in a joint letter. “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.”
“Americans do not want our charities and houses of worship to be torn apart by partisan campaign politics,” the letter said. “We must keep this valuable safeguard that protects our houses of worship and our political process.”
In her written testimony, Tyler said the BJC does not share the view of some that the current law prohibiting 501(c)(3) organizations from partisan politicking infringes on their free-speech rights.
“In the name of protecting the church from the IRS and without any evidence of an overreaching bureaucracy, the Appropriations Committee acted today to expose the garden of the church to the woolly wilderness of partisan campaigning.”
“The prohibition has allowed charitable organizations to concentrate on their exempt purposes and not be distracted or co-opted by partisan campaigns,” she said. “Current law strikes the right balance in protecting the integrity and independence of our religious sector.”
Tyler said nothing in current tax law prevents pastors from speaking out on controversial issues from the pulpit. Houses of worship can encourage voting by engaging in voter registration drives, hosting candidate forums, distributing voter education materials and inviting candidates to speak at a worship service. Pastors and other leaders can endorse or oppose candidates in their personal capacity, as long as they do not use resources of the church.
Tyler said getting too close to political processes hinders the church’s ability to speak a prophetic voice to people in power. Candidates and donors would have a strong incentive to pressure churches to join their campaigns, she said, because of the “highly valued tax status” that they enjoy.
Donors to churches receive a tax deduction for their contributions, just like donors to other 501(c)(3) organizations. Churches are different, however, in that they receive their 501(c)(3) tax status automatically and are not required to file the IRS Form 990 providing the public with financial information about nonprofit organizations.
“These permissible accommodations for churches combined with the selective non-enforcement of the law Section 116 envisions would make houses of worship particularly vulnerable targets for partisan campaign activity, compared to the broader 501(c)(3) community,” Tyler said.
“Jesus taught us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” she closed her letter of testimony July 12. “Curtailing the enforcement of the law could put pressure on churches to render to Caesar in God’s house. This approach does not bode well for religion or religious liberty.”
The bill, which provides annual funding for the Treasury Department, the Judiciary, the Small Business Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and other related agencies, is one of a dozen spending bills for 2018 expected to pass the House Appropriations Committee by the end of this week.
GOP leaders hope to bring the omnibus package to the floor during the last week of July, right before the House adjourns for its August recess, The Hill reported July 14. The strategy is to allow time to negotiate a final spending package before the 2017 fiscal year runs out in early October, thereby averting a government shutdown.