Written by Don Byrd

Late last week, as I posted here, the House Appropriations Committee narrowly voted to keep a provision of a government funding bill that adds unique barriers to any IRS investigation of potential violations of the so-called “Johnson Amendment” by churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches. 

While churches would still be prohibited from endorsing or opposing candidates or contributing to candidates’ political campaigns, 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 but holding the rest of the sector to a different standard.

The Baptist Joint Committee sent a letter to committee members and joined other religious and nonprofit groups in urging the committee to strike that provision (Section 116) of the bill. An amendment proposed by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Rep. Barbara Lee designed to do just that, however, failed on a 28-24 vote, leaving the defunding provision in place. (The BJC’s Amanda Tyler issued a strong statement criticizing the vote.)

Video of the 22-minute committee debate over that amendment is now available online. I encourage everyone who cares about this issue to watch. Several members gave impassioned and well-reasoned speeches reflecting an understanding of how the current law protects houses of worship from politicization.

One of my favorites was from Representative David Price (D-NC), which begins about 14:50 of the video below. Here is my rough transcript of his remarks:

I suggest that we all consult our common sense and our common experience on this matter before we make the step to bring partisan, candidate-centered politics into our churches. That’s really what’s at stake here, not the ability of churches … synagogues, mosques, religious institutions to advocate on the issues of the day, and not an ability to encourage voting … or to encourage voter registration… .

… [A]s long as the activity is in promotion of good citizenship…the relationship of our faith traditions and morality to politics and to the issues of the day, we want to encourage more activity not less. And there’s plenty of evidence in our recent history that that kind of advocacy, that kind of citizenship and concern for the common good is alive and well in our religious institutions. What we do not want though is to legitimate using religious institutions as simply a conduit for political contributions or for candidate and party-centered political advocacy. That would be a huge step backward and it would lead — I think — to great cynicism… .

The activities of these institutions at present are greatly respected. They have great moral force. People pay attention. It 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’d live to regret. So let’s just think about this.

I doubt that any of us have experiences that match some of the worst-case scenarios that we hear from the Religious Right. i just don’t think it happens. So therefore let’s not act on the basis of some kind of hysterical charges. Let’s maintain the safeguards that are in place and that have served us well.

Watch the whole debate in the video below. For more on this issue, see the BJC’s “Community not Candidates” resource page. To make your own voice heard, visit faith-voices.org and sign the letter as a leader in your church, telling Congress to maintain protections for our houses of worship against politicization.

This post has been updated.