Written by Don Byrd

[November 9 UPDATE: The bill is headed to the full House with a new amendment, making it “even worse than it began for the charitable community, including our houses of worship.” Read the press release here.]

[UPDATE: The bill passed a committee on Nov. 8 with the troublesome language intact]

The 429-page “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” Legislation released today by members of the U.S. House of Representatives includes a section that would severely undermine the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” which protects tax-exempt houses of worship (and other tax exempt non-profit organizations) from politicization by barring them from participating in electoral campaigns. More than 100 faith groups — including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty — previously signed a letter urging Congress to keep the Johnson Amendment protections in place because they help keep our churches from becoming extensions of partisan political organizations.

Following today’s announcement, BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler, who earlier this year provided testimony to Congress about the importance of maintaining the Johnson Amendment, issued a statement decrying the proposed change:

This tax bill will deform, not reform, the tax law that protects our houses of worship.

Gutting the law that protects 501(c)(3) organizations from candidates pressing for endorsements threatens to destroy our congregations from within over disagreements on partisan campaigns. Under the current tax law, pastors speak truth to power and preach on moral issues, no matter how controversial. This change has been pushed by a tiny minority and is opposed by the vast majority of Americans and churchgoers, across party lines and faith traditions.

Pastors and people of faith know that there’s nothing free about a pulpit that is bought and paid for by political campaign donations or beholden to partisan interests.

In addition to religious organizations, more than 4,000 individual faith leaders from across the country also signed a letter opposing any change that would undermine the Johnson Amendment. Visit faith-voices.org to read the letter and add your name.

Specifically, Section 5201 of the bill (which begins on page 427) states:

[A]n organization…shall not fail to be treated as organized and operated exclusively for a religious purpose, nor shall it be deemed to have participated in, or intervened in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, solely because of the content of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings, but only if the preparation and presentation of such content…is in the ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose, and… results in the organization incurring not more than de minimis incremental expenses.

Markup of the legislation is scheduled to begin next week.

USA Today coverage, which describes the measure as “tucked in to the last pages,” notes that in a recent survey, “79% of respondents said it was inappropriate for pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit.”

For more background, visit the BJC’s Community Not Candidates resource page.