By Cherilyn Crowe
A troubling section of a government funding bill passed a key committee vote, and it could undermine important protections for houses of worship in the tax code.
Despite bipartisan opposition, Section 116 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill passed the House Appropriations Committee on July 13. That section undermines 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.
The language in Section 116 adds unique barriers to any IRS investigation of potential violations of the law by churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches. While it does not repeal the Johnson Amendment, it would hinder enforcement capability.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, offered an amendment to remove that section of the bill. Co-sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, the amendment garnered bipartisan support and sparked passionate debate, but it failed on a committee vote of 24-28. All Democrats voted for the amendment, along with two Republicans: Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pennsylvania, and Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Virginia.
Rep. Wasserman Shultz, who spoke “as a Jewish member of Congress,” said Section 116 “would undercut the values of our nation’s religious organizations, violate our First Amendment rights and harm our constituents.” She said the Johnson Amendment “protects the integrity and independence of charities and houses of worship.”
“Current law reflects the importance of this independence by striking a careful balance,” she continued. “Houses of worship with tax-exempt status are permitted to engage in political advocacy – they just can’t tell people who to vote for, so it’s no surprise that hundreds of religious organizations and faith leaders oppose Section 116 of this legislation out of an understandable concern that political parties and candidates seeking power would be empowered to use their congregations as tools and pressure them for endorsements.”
“The prohibition has allowed charitable organizations to concentrate on their exempt purposes and not to be distracted or co-opted by partisan campaigns,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, during debate. “Without it, houses of worship would be exposed to political pressure to endorse candidates. Nothing in the tax law prevents pastors from speaking out from the pulpit on issues, no matter how controversial.”
Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina, asked everyone to consult their common sense. An active member of Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, Price said “bringing partisan, candidate-centered politics into our churches” is the issue at stake.
“At present, [religious institutions] are greatly respected. They have great moral force. People pay attention. If it’s simply seen, though, as an extension of campaigns or institutions that are exploited by campaigns, I think that removes that moral force and makes this something that we live to regret,” he said.
Despite those arguments and defense of current law from Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Massachusetts, Ranking Member Nita Lowey, D-New York, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, and Rep. Lee, the amendment failed.
BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler criticized the final vote. “In the name of protecting the church from the IRS and without any evidence of an overreaching bureaucracy, the Appropriations Committee acted today to expose the garden of the church to the woolly wilderness of partisan campaigning,” she said.
“Gutting potential enforcement of the law gives candidates and campaign donors a green light to press churches for their endorsements and possibly their tax-deductible offerings, too. Vast majorities of clergy and churchgoers oppose endorsing candidates from their houses of worship, knowing it would divide their congregations and distract from their mission.”
The day before the markup of the bill, the BJC sent letter testimony to the House Appropriations Committee outlining opposition to Section 116 and joined 107 faith and other nonprofit groups in a letter opposing the provision.
If the funding bill becomes law, churches would still be legally prohibited from endorsing or opposing candidates or contributing to candidates’ political campaigns. However, this provision would make it nearly impossible for the IRS to investigate even the most egregious of violations by this small subset of 501(c)(3) organizations while holding the rest of the sector to a different standard.