The U.S. House of Representatives ignored pleas of Baptist and other faith groups, passing a massive spending bill Sept. 14 that includes a provision consonant with President Trump’s stated desire to “get rid of and totally destroy” a decades-old law requiring that churches and other charities accepting tax-exempt benefits stay out of partisan politics.
The package of funding bills provides $1.2 trillion for all discretionary funding for the federal government in the 2018 fiscal year. It includes a new provision prohibiting funds for the Internal Revenue Service to use in determining “that a church is not exempt from taxation for participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidates for public office” without consent of the IRS commissioner and notification of the tax committees of both houses of Congress.
Observers say the language effectively handcuffs the IRS from going after 501(c)3 charities that violate a 63-year-old provision in the tax code called the “Johnson Amendment” after its sponsor, Lyndon B. Johnson, then a senator from Texas and later vice president and president.
Long uncontroversial, the provision has in recent years drawn criticism from politically active religious conservatives who say it infringes on their freedom of speech. Other clergy say it allows enough latitude for churches to preach on social issues and educate voters without opening the door for houses of worship to be co-opted by candidates as a political action committee.
Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, testified earlier this year before Congress that changing the law would expose churches to political pressure.
“The campaign intervention prohibition applies not only to presidential and congressional elections, but to every state and local race, too,” she said. “Many candidates and donors supporting candidates would have a strong incentive to put pressure on churches to become involved in their campaigns, particularly given the high-valued tax status churches enjoy.”
More than 1,000 Baptist leaders signed an open letter delivered to Congress Aug. 16 opposing all efforts to weaken or repeal the Johnson Amendment.
“Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines,” said the letter, signed by a total of 4,000 religious leaders in an interfaith campaign called Faith Voices.
“The prophetic role of faith communities necessitates that we retain our independent voice,” the signers said. “Current law respects this independence and strikes the right balance: houses of worship that enjoy favored tax-exempt status may engage in advocacy to address moral and political issues, but they cannot tell people who to vote for or against. Nothing in current law, however, prohibits me from endorsing or opposing political candidates in my own personal capacity.”
In April 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 were among 99 religious and denominational organizations advising congressional leaders that people of faith do not want partisan politics to infiltrate their houses of worship.
President Trump promised at the National Prayer Breakfast in February to repeal the Johnson Amendment “and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
He later signed a largely symbolic order “promoting free speech and religious liberty” that directs the executive branch to limit its enforcement of the law.
In July Democrats tried unsuccessfully to remove the Johnson Amendment language from the 2018 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill. An amendment co-sponsored by Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) drew bipartisan support but failed by four votes in the House Appropriations Committee.
The measure moved on with the contested section intact in a package of bills collectively known as the Make America Secure and Prosperous Appropriations Act (HR 3354), which passed in the full house by a vote of 211-198.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet introduced its version of the Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill. Typically both houses of Congress pass their own versions of appropriation bills and then go into a conference committee where leaders hammer out differences before voting on a reconciled bill that then goes to the president.