By Cherilyn Crowe

Religious groups are urging Congress to maintain current law that protects houses of worship and other religious nonprofit organizations from political pressure and additional dangers that come with endorsing and opposing candidates.

On April 4, a diverse coalition of 99 faith groups delivered a letter to House and Senate leaders reminding them that the current tax code safeguards “the integrity of our charitable sector and campaign finance system.”

“A broad section of America’s faith community is delivering a message loud and clear: We don’t want and we don’t need a change in the tax law to pursue our mission,” said BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler. “As soon as the church joins at the hip with a particular candidate or party, its prophetic witness – its ability to speak truth to power and not risk being co-opted by the government – is hindered.”

The letter reminds Congress that houses of worship already can speak to issues, and leaders can endorse or oppose candidates in their personal capacity. “Current law simply limits groups from being both a tax-exempt ministry and a partisan political entity,” the letter states.

“The American Muslim community watches with dismay the use of religion by politicians in many countries and feels ​horrified​ by its disastrous consequences for all,” said Dr. Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America.

“In America, this wall has protected us from politicizing our houses of worship and prevented our pulpits from being dragged on to the political stump,” he said.

The greater nonprofit community also is calling for the law to remain. The following day, nearly 4,500 nonprofits delivered a letter to Congress asking to maintain the current law that protects 501(c)(3)s from being hounded for partisan political contributions and endorsements.

The groups are united against any calls to repeal or change the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” which has become shorthand for a provision in the tax code that applies to all 501(c)(3) organizations. Groups that choose that most-favored tax status must refrain from endorsing, opposing or financially supporting political candidates.

“Most pastors know that endorsing candidates would divide their diverse congregations, distract from their core purpose, and dilute their message,” Tyler said. “All clergy can – and do – speak out on the great moral issues of the day, but encouraging houses of worship to intervene in campaigns with tax-deductible offerings would fundamentally change them. Churches are not political action committees, nor should they be.”

Polls consistently show that vast majorities of Americans and members of the clergy do not want tax-exempt nonprofits engaging in political campaigns. Most recently, Independent Sector’s March 2017 research revealed that 72 percent of all Americans want to keep the current law. The National Association of Evangelicals found that nearly 90 percent of evangelical leaders do not think pastors should endorse politicians from the pulpit in its February 2017 survey.

Read the letter and hear from other faith leaders at BJConline.org/CommunityNotCandidates, and join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #CommunityNotCandidates.

From the March/April 2017 edition of Report from the Capital. You can also read the digital version of the magazine or view it as a PDF.