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The Johnson Amendment is a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Section 501(c)(3) organizations are the most common type of nonprofit organization in the United States, ranging from charitable foundations to universities and churches. The amendment is named for then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas.
Under terms of the 1954 legislation, churches and other nonprofit organizations that are exempt from taxation "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office," Organizations claiming tax-exempt status cannot collect contributions on behalf of political campaigns or make any statement for or against a particular candidate. Clergy are not allowed to endorse candidates from the pulpit.
The law is fairly narrow in scope. Nonpartisan voter education activities and church-organized voter registration drives are legal. Pastors are free to preach on social and political issues of concern. Churches can publish "issue guides" for voters.
According to the Internal Revenue Service, contributions to political campaign funds, or public statements of position in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office, are disallowed. However, certain voter education activities as well as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, if conducted in a non-partisan manner, are not prohibited. The US Council of Catholic Bishops outlines the tax regulations in a document circulated to priests.
A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that black Protestants have been more likely than other Christian groups to report having heard their clergy speak out clearly on the merits or faults of a particular candidate. The study found that 28% of black Protestants heard their clergy speak in support of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, while about 1 in 5 black Protestants, about 20%, said they had heard their ministers denounce Donald Trump. By comparison, just 4% of white evangelicals reported having heard their clergy speak in favor of a presidential candidate (2% each for Trump and Clinton), while 7% heard their clergy speak against a candidate (mostly Clinton).
The amendment was to a bill in the 83rd Congress, H.R. 8300, which was enacted into law as the Internal Revenue Code of 1954. The amendment was proposed by Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas on July 2, 1954. (Johnson would later serve as President from 1963 to 1969.) The amendment was agreed to without any discussion or debate and included in Internal Revenue Code of 1954 (Aug. 16, 1954, ch. 736). It was considered uncontroversial at the time, and continued to be included in the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 enacted during the Ronald Reagan administration.
Despite the controversy surrounding the Johnson Amendment, the Internal Revenue Service has not been especially active in enforcing it. Steven Mosher of Breitbart claims he was one such person targeted and was allegedly told the IRS didn't have any specific regulations on voters' guides that could be use as a template but that if he made one ever again, his organization would lose its non-profit status and be fined. Since 2008, the Alliance Defending Freedom has organized "Pulpit Freedom Sunday", encouraging pastors to give explicitly political sermons in defiance of the law. The IRS, however, has rarely moved to take away a church's tax exemption. According to the alliance, as reported by The Washington Post, only one of more than 2,000 Christian clergy deliberately challenging the law since 2008 has been audited, and none has been punished; the one person apparently being Steven Mosher.
Conservative groups that favor a greater role for religion in the public space, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, have long sought to repeal the amendment, arguing that it restricts free speech by censoring the content of a pastor's sermon. Overturning the law, however, would also have major implications for campaign finance. If churches or clergy are allowed to participate in political campaigns, tax-free donations to the churches could go to support a political candidate. Religious organizations could become bigger money players in politics.
In recent years, the Alliance Defending Freedom has attempted to challenge the Johnson Amendment through the Pulpit Freedom Initiative, which urges Protestant ministers to violate the statute in protest. The ADF contends that the amendment violates First Amendment rights.
In the 2000s, many Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have sought to repeal the provision, arguing that it restricts the free speech rights of churches and other religious groups. Repeal has been criticized because churches have fewer reporting requirements than other non-profit organizations, and because it would effectively make political contributions tax-deductible. On May 4, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order "to defend the freedom of religion and speech" for the purpose of easing the Johnson Amendment's restrictions.
On February 2, 2017, President Trump vowed at the National Prayer Breakfast to "totally destroy" the Johnson Amendment, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer announced to the press that the President "committed to get rid of the Johnson Amendment", "allowing our representatives of faith to speak freely and without retribution", and Republican lawmakers introduced legislation that would allow all 501(c)(3) organizations to support political candidates, as long as any associated spending was minimal.
On May 4, 2017, Trump signed the "Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty." The executive order does not (nor can it) repeal the Johnson Amendment, nor does it allow preachers to endorse from the pulpit, but it does direct the United States Department of Treasury that "churches should not be found guilty of implied endorsements where secular organizations would not be." Douglas Laycock, speaking to The Washington Post, indicated that he was not aware of any cases where such implied endorsements have caused problems in the past.
Criticism of repeal efforts
Repeal has been criticized for a number of reasons.
One concern is that political campaign contributions funneled through 501(c)(3) organizations would be tax-deductible for donors, and that such contributions would not be disclosed, since churches are exempt from reporting requirements required of other 501(c)(3) organizations. Under this critique, repeal would have the potential of creating a mechanism where political contributions could be made in violation of relevant campaign financing laws. Polls have shown that majorities of both the general public and of clergy oppose churches endorsing political candidates. The National Council of Nonprofits released a statement opposing the proposed repeal legislation. Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofits, foundations, and corporations has also stated their opposition to the proposal to repeal the Johnson Amendment.
Try to imagine having to choose between supporting a political campaign and repairing the local orphanage or helping a family in need, because right now churches have been spared having to make that decision. They wouldn't have to explain why airing more campaign commercials was more important than the collection plate paying for someone's life saving medical procedure or coming together to rebuild their house after a fire. Then there's the issue of whether the church spend their money on regional or national politics, which could divide churches and parties. You wouldn't want people to start losing their faith in the church once the benefits of their charitable work disappears; not everyone's as resolute in their faith as Job and those poor to whom the kingdom of God is said to be open may wonder why they've been financially forsaken.
- "The Johnson Amendment in Five Questions and Answers", NPR
- "The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations". Irs.gov. 2012-08-14. Archived from the original on 2 December 2010. Retrieved 2012-09-09.
- "Political Activity and Lobbying Guidelines for Catholic Organizations"
- Congressional Record-Senate, July 2, 1954, p. 9604
- Peters, Jeremy W. (February 2, 2017). "The Johnson Amendment, Which Trump Vows to ‘Destroy,’ Explained". The New York Times.
- "Repeal the Christian Gag Rule: Johnson Amendment Allows Continued IRS Targeting" Breitbart
- "Ensuring a Free Pulpit" Alliance defending Freedom
- "Trump is wrong. Pulpit freedom already exists." The Washington Post
- Berlinerblau, Jacques (2011-10-05). "Where does church end and state begin? - Georgetown/On Faith". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2011-12-26.
- "Trump signs order aimed at allowing churches to engage in more political activity". Washington Post. 4 May 2017. Retrieved 4 May 2017.
- The White House, President Donald J. Trump signs the Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty and participates in the National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden, video, time 43:29
- "Trump asks for prayers for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings at National Prayer Breakfast". Washington Post. February 2, 2017.
- "2/2/17: White House Press Briefing". The White House. February 2, 2017.
- Marcos, Cristina (2017-02-02). "GOP unveils bill to allow political activity by churches". The Hill.
- "H.R. 781 - 115th Congress".
- "Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty". The White House. 4 May 2017. Retrieved 5 May 2017.
- Lopez, German (9 February 2017). "Trump's “law and order” executive orders, explained". Vox.com. Retrieved 5 May 2017.
- Pulliam Bailey, Sarah (5 May 2017). "Many religious freedom advocates are actually disappointed with Trump’s executive order".
- Tesfaye, Sophia (2017-02-03). "Trump’s plan to "totally destroy" the Johnson Amendment creates a huge campaign finance loophole for churches to exploit".
- Jackson, Elizabeth (2016-10-06). "What Would Repealing the Johnson Amendment Mean?" (in en). Church Law & Tax.
- Green, Emma (2016-08-02). "Trump Wants to Make Churches the New Super PACs" (in en-US). The Atlantic.
- Lewis, Andrew R. (2017-02-03). "Most People — And Perhaps Most Clergy — Don’t Want Political Endorsements In Church" (in en-US). FiveThirtyEight.
- "National Council of Nonprofits Opposes Latest Efforts to Politicize Charitable Nonprofits and Foundations". National Council of Nonprofits. 2017-02-02.
- "Statement on Johnson Amendment and Political Activity by Charities". Independent Sector. 2017-02-02.