Written by Don Byrd

The House Appropriations Committee tonight took up a government funding bill that includes a troubling section (Section 116) de-funding IRS enforcement of a regulation important to church autonomy. The so-called “Johnson Amendment” prohibits tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in political campaigning for or against particular candidates. While the funding bill would not repeal the Johnson Amendment, it would remove enforcement capability, effectively crippling it. 

An amendment offered by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida (co-sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California) to remove that section of the bill failed in committee on a 28-24 vote. All Democrats voted for the amendment, along with two Republicans (Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pennsylvania, and Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Virginia).

Along with Rep. Wasserman Schultz, many other members spoke passionately in favor of the amendment to remove the troubling language, including Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, and Ranking Member Nita Lowey, D-New York. 

BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler issued a statement criticizing the final vote, saying in part:

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.

As the Baptist Joint Committee has long argued, the Johnson Amendment protects houses of worship and should be preserved. In a letter to the committee opposing the defunding section, Tyler explained how current law helps churches and pastors:

For more than 60 years, all 501(c)(3) organizations have been required to refrain from partisan campaign involvement in exchange for receiving that most-favored tax status. The prohibition has allowed charitable organizations to concentrate on their exempt purposes and not be distracted or co-opted by partisan campaigns.

Current law strikes the right balance in protecting the integrity and independence of our religious sector. The tax law prohibition is not a divorcement of politics from houses of worship. Many churches feel that they are called to be “political” and to “speak truth to power” on a variety of social issues. Nothing in the tax law prevents pastors from speaking out from the pulpit on issues, no matter how controversial.

Houses of worship can encourage voting, engage in voter registration drives, host candidate forums, distribute nonpartisan education materials, and invite all candidates for an office to speak during a worship service.

Pastors and other leaders can endorse and oppose candidates in their personal capacities and without using the resources of the church. Whether and how openly they want to do this is a personal decision.

The BJC also signed a letter along with 100+ religious and nonprofit organizations urging the committee to reject Section 116 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill.

This post has been updated with additional details.