The head of a Baptist group dedicated to religious freedom opposed President Trump’s vow to overturn a law that prohibits churches and other tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates in a statement Feb. 3.
“Politicizing churches does them no favors,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
The president said at the National Prayer Breakfast Feb. 2 that the right to worship is a fundamental freedom in the United States. “That is why I will get rid of, and totally destroy, the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” he said.
Trump referred to a law introduced in 1954 by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who went on to become America’s 39th president when President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
The amendment stated that “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
In recent years some conservative Christians have claimed the limitation muzzles their freedom of speech. Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian 501(c)(3), sponsors an annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday encouraging pastors to intentionally violate the Johnson Amendment in a protest seeking its repeal.
The 501(c)(3) is the most common type of 29 categories of nonprofit organizations operating under Section 501(c) in the United States Internal Revenue Code. It describes an entity created for “religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition” or “for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals.”
Organizations that qualify under 501(c)(3) are exempt from paying taxes because of their charitable or public service functions, and taxpayers who contribute to them are allowed to deduct the amount of their donation from their individual income taxes. In exchange for those benefits, organizations seeking to gain or maintain tax-exempt status must adhere to limitations.
Such organizations risk losing their tax-exempt status if they devote a “substantial” part of their activity to trying to influence legislation. The law is ambiguous about how much lobbying is too much, and the IRS weighs a number of factors when making that determination.
The IRS recognizes that many churches believe part of their calling is to speak out on issues that affect their members and communities. Churches and ministers have long been at the forefront of social change – try to imagine a Civil Rights Movement without the Rev. Martin Luther King.
The line is somewhat brighter when it comes to political endorsements. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position made by, or on behalf of, the organization are strictly forbidden.
Pastors are free to express themselves on political matters as individuals as long as they are not speaking on behalf of the church, and congregations are allowed to engage in efforts like candidate forums and distributing voter guides as long as they are non-partisan. It’s even OK for a church to invite a candidate to speak from the pulpit, as long as it isn’t an overt endorsement.
Johnson introduced his 1954 amendment on the floor of the Senate. There was no opportunity to debate it in committee, so there is no history of discussion about his legislative intent. It is known that at the time he was running for re-election, and a particular political nonprofit was producing materials backing his opponent in the Democratic primary.
Johnson became aware of the materials and asked his lawyer for an opinion about their legality. His counsel told him that the materials violated Texas law, but there was no prohibition against attempting to influence a political campaign in federal law.
The senator responded by introducing a federal law saying that in effect if an organization wants to be absolved from paying taxes it must stay out of partisan politics. Whatever his motive, no church was involved.
Polls show that most Americans don’t want to hear political endorsements from the pulpit. Groups like the Baptist Joint Committee say rather than infringing on religious freedom, keeping church and state separate is a good idea.
Tyler, in her second month on the job following the retirement of her longtime predecessor Brent Walker, termed efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment “an attack on the integrity of both our charitable organizations and campaign finance system.”
“Inviting churches to intervene in campaigns with tax-deductible offerings would fundamentally change our houses of worship,” she said. “It would usher our partisan divisions into the pews and harm the church’s ability to provide refuge.”
Tyler said changing the law “would hinder the church’s prophetic witness, threatening to turn pulpit prophets into political puppets.”