A moderate Baptist organization in Missouri reiterated its support for a provision in the federal tax code barring churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates that has suddenly emerged as an issue in one of the most-watched U.S. Senate races in the nation.
Churchnet — a ministry network of 150 churches with 43,000 members also known as the Baptist General Convention of Missouri – issued a statement Aug. 26 opposing repeal of the “Johnson Amendment,” a proposal making headlines in the Show-Me State as part of an effort to unseat incumbent Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley told a recent gathering of ministers that he supports ending the rule added to the tax code in 1954 that bars 501(c)3 charities that benefit from tax-exempt status from trying to interfere in an election.
Hawley, former general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said at an Aug. 21 gathering in St. Louis sponsored by the Family Research Council that he believes the ban is unconstitutional.
“Back at the firm where I used to work, we used to have a challenge to the IRS we would issue every year,” Hawley says in an excerpt from an audio recording of the comments published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We’d say: ‘Listen, why don’t you go ahead and fine a pastor for preaching his convictions from the pulpit? Why don’t you go ahead and do it? Just try it, and we’ll take the case.”
“Now, they’ve never taken us up on it,” the Senate hopeful said. “The IRS blusters and they threaten but they would never do it, because it is unconstitutional. It is just absolutely unconstitutional to try to tell pastors or ministers of the gospel of whatever kind what they can or cannot say from the pulpit.”
Churchnet, a member body of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty that last year joined a large coalition of faith groups opposing President Donald Trump’s stated goal of repealing the Johnson Amendment, says the rule is good for churches.
“The ‘Johnson Amendment’ protects house of worship from candidates seeking endorsement during a political campaign,” said Brian Ford, executive director of Churchnet. “As a life-long Baptist and ordained pastor, I can’t imagine how damaging it would be to erase this legislation for local churches across the nation.”
“As members of the Body of Christ, we are called to be in community with one another, even those we disagree with on a myriad of political and social issues,” said Ford, who has led the group started in the early 2000s since 2016. “We need to continue to live into this tension, not ramp it up.”
Hawley, a former constitutional law professor who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, worked on the legal team that in 2014 won a landmark case in the U.S. Supreme Court involving the Southern Baptist owners of the arts-and-crafts store empire Hobby Lobby fighting against a requirement in the Affordable Care Act that companies provide insurance to employees that covers contraceptives.
Hobby Lobby’s owners, evangelical Christians who attend Council Road Baptist Church in Bethany, Oklahoma, said paying for certain forms of contraception that prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the mother’s womb would violate their conscience. A divided Supreme Court agreed 5-4 that a federal law protecting the religious liberty rights of individual Americans also applies to closely held for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby.
Churchnet’s upcoming fall gathering includes an address by Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee and vocal proponent of keeping the Johnson Amendment in place.
Don Hinkle, spokesman for the 1,700-church Missouri Baptist Convention, said he thinks the rival body is out of step with a majority of the state’s Baptists.
Hinkle, editor of The Pathway newspaper and the convention’s public policy spokesman told the Springfield News-Leader that the Johnson Amendment “is designed and in effect tries to muscle the First Amendment rights of people of faith.”
“Southern Baptists have always been staunch opponents” of the ban, Hinkle said, because “it denies us our First Amendment Rights.”
The 520,000-member Missouri Baptist Convention is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, a founding member of the Baptist Joint Committee that withdrew from the religious liberty coalition to open its own lobbying arm in the 1990s.
A spokesperson for McCaskill, first elected to the Senate in 2006, told local media that she opposes repeal of the Johnson Amendment.
The Senate race, one of the nation’s most important in determining whether Republicans maintain control of the Senate in 2019, is currently a dead heat, with Hawley gaining ground.
Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian conservative political advocacy group funded by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, recently spent $2.1 million on ads criticizing McCaskill for her support of Obamacare. The Koch brothers are also running ads against Democrats in Wisconsin and Tennessee.