Written by Don Byrd

For the past two years, members of Congress who advocate for more politics in the pulpit and in our congregations have searched for legislative vehicles to weaken or even repeal a key protection for houses of worship. The Johnson Amendment, which bars tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from participating in electoral  campaigns, has been under fire via provisions added to tax and budget bills, and it has been a constant target for political leaders including President Trump.

Now as time runs out on the current Congress, they are back at it for one more try. One provision of the Retirement, Savings, and Other Tax Relief Act of 2018 would change the tax code to allow 501 (c)(3) tax exempt entities to endorse candidates for office.

The relevant language of the bill states:

SPECIAL RULE RELATING TO POLITICAL CAMPAIGN STATEMENTS OF ORGANIZATION DESCRIBED IN SUBSECTION (c)(3).

(1) IN GENERAL.—For purposes of subsection (c)(3) and sections 170(c)(2), 2055, 2106, 2522, and 4955, an organization shall not fail to be treated as organized and operated exclusively for a purpose described in subsection (c)(3), 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 statement which— (A) is made in the ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose, and (B) results in the organization incurring not more than de minimis incremental expenses.

This provision may sound like a narrow or modest change but it would effectively undo the Johnson Amendment and its protections for houses of worship against politicization. In an e-mail to constituents opposing the legislation, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), as reported by EthicsDaily.com, warned:

Section 407 of the tax bill would essentially repeal the Johnson Amendment,” the BJC explained …. “Under this provision, any tax-exempt organization could endorse a candidate in all the activity it carries out and in all the materials it shares, as long as there is ostensibly another purpose for engaging in those activities or creating those materials. Even one statement of an endorsement could have a huge impact on an election; yet, this provision would allow endorsements to ultimately dominate the organization’s activities.”

Examples provided by the BJC of what the proposed legislation would allow included endorsements of candidates in sermons and church publications, signs on church property urging people to vote for a particular candidate, and political ads during televised worship services.

If you are a lay leader in your congregation, you can sign on to a letter supporting the Johnson Amendment and opposing any legislation weakening it. For more information on this topic, see the BJC”s Johnson Amendment resource page.