Written by Don Byrd
As I posted yesterday, President Trump, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, reiterated his campaign pledge to end the IRS ban on electioneering by churches and houses of worship as a condition of their tax-exempt status (sometimes referred to as the “Johnson Amendment”). The Baptist Joint Committee issued a strong statement opposing any proposal to remove that regulation.
The controversy has generated significant coverage and other reactions that offer additional, important perspective and information about the rule and the proposed change. Here are just a few that I found especially compelling. What are you reading or writing on the subject? Send me your links so I can add to this list.
The Johnson Amendment merely assures that taxpayers do not subsidize partisan politicking. It also ensures that tax-exempt organizations do not serve as the conduit for tax-exempt contributions to political candidates.
All of this kvetching from the religious right is an attempt to confuse voters with sleight of hand. By complaining about the supposed limitations on their free speech, the religious right fails to acknowledge that tax exemption is a form of public subsidy.
All the Johnson Amendment requires is that, in exchange for that subsidy, the beneficiaries refrain from partisan politicking.
The Washington Post report on the issue, which quoted the response by the BJC, added that the IRS regulation in question restricts many more organizations than just churches:
Houses of worship make up just a fraction of the universe of so-called 501(c)(3) organizations in the United States, all of which are restricted by the Johnson Amendment. A range of other educational and charitable organizations also bear that designation, including the Clinton Foundation and the Donald J. Trump Foundation.
Under current law, churches are free to engage in political activity; the restrictions under the Johnson Amendment are triggered by their receipt of tax-exempt status.
The NYTimes coverage reports that legislation has been introduced that would enshrine President Trump’s proposal into law:
[T]he Free Speech Fairness Act was introduced in the House and the Senate on Wednesday. The bill would modify the Johnson Amendment by allowing churches and other charities to engage in political expression.
That article also helpfully reminds readers that churches remain free to speak out on issues of the day, just not endorse candidates for office. It also notes that “only one church is known to have ever lost its tax-exempt status for partisan politicking.” (and it also includes a quote from the BJC’s Amanda Tyler)
An explainer by Vox emphasizes that the so-called Johnson Amendment does not just apply to churches.
About a million and a half organizations in the US are registered as tax-exempt, many of which are 501(c)(3). Per the Johnson Amendment, an organization in that category “may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.”
As of May 2016, only 312,373 of those organizations are congregations (this includes congregations of all religions).
For more, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s resource page on Church Electioneering.