Written by Don Byrd
The last time I checked, the Johnson Amendment was still in place – still the law. As you know well if you have been following this blog, or following the Baptist Joint Committee on social media, the Johnson Amendment protects congregations against politicization by barring tax-exempt nonprofit organizations — including houses of worship — from engaging in electioneering. That includes prohibiting candidate endorsements from the pulpit, or through the use of church resources.
It has not been easy keeping this important religious liberty protection in place during the last few years. A wave of grassroots support has pushed back repeated efforts in Congress to gut or repeal the Johnson Amendment. The BJC’s Executive Director Amanda Tyler has been especially outspoken on the provision’s urgent importance — submitting testimony to Congress, writing editorials, and urging other people of faith to share their support for the idea that our places of worship are not the right venue for the machinery of electoral politics.
And those efforts have worked. The law stayed in place, despite attempts to undermine it. So, what is this latest story all about? Here is President Trump during a dinner this week hosting his leading evangelical supporters:
As you know, in recent years, the government tried to undermine religious freedom. But the attacks on communities of faith are over. We’ve ended it. We’ve ended it. (Applause.) Unlike some before us, we are protecting your religious liberty.
In the last 18 months alone, we have stopped the Johnson Amendment from interfering with your First Amendment rights. (Applause.) A big deal. It’s a big deal.
First, the Johnson Amendment does not interfere with First Amendment rights; it protects church autonomy, and keeps our congregations free from the dangers of politicization. Second, nobody has stopped the Johnson Amendment; it remains the law of the land. As the New York Times reports:
Eliminating the provision in the law would require Congress to act. Instead, Mr. Trump signed an executive order in May 2017 directing the Internal Revenue Service not to aggressively pursue cases in which a church endorses a candidate or makes political donations.
Legal experts have said the I.R.S. has very rarely pursued such cases against churches, and religious leaders have often been outspoken about politics even if they have had to stop short of officially endorsing a candidate.
Mr. Trump ignored that reality Monday night. He urged religious leaders to use what he described as their newfound freedom of speech to campaign from the pulpit on behalf of Republican candidates.
The Johnson Amendment is, and remains, an important protection against the unnecessary division and misuse for political purposes of our congregations. Refraining from engaging in politics from the pulpit does not remove a minister’s right to speak out on the political issues of the day, or to endorse candidates on their own time, in their individual capacity. First Amendment freedoms of speech are not in jeopardy.
Despite the President’s claims this week to evangelicals, the Johnson Amendment remains in force, and remains a good idea for the church.
The Johnson Amendment applies to all groups that choose to be 501(c)(3) organizations. For more on this issue, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s Community not Candidates page and its Johnson Amendment resource site.