(RNS) — The U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted last week to keep language in a proposed funding bill that would add teeth to President Trump’s executive order asking the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment.
The language in Section 116 of the 2018 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill would defund IRS efforts to enforce the amendment, which can strip nonprofit status from any 501(c)(3) organization that endorses a political candidate or participates in a political campaign.
The bill cuts funding for the IRS by $149 million from fiscal year 2017, and the IRS wouldn’t be able to use any funding it receives to investigate a church for making such endorsements, according to the bill. It would have to get the consent of the IRS commissioner, who then would report to Congress on the investigation.
The language was opposed by at least 50 groups, including the American Jewish Committee, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Secular Coalition for America and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
And about 8 in 10 Americans (79 percent) say it is inappropriate for pastors to endorse a political candidate during a church service, according to a 2015 survey by LifeWay Research.
Not that that stops everyone: 14 percent of American churchgoers reported to Pew Research Center last summer their pastors had spoken about a specific presidential candidate from the pulpit. And the IRS only has investigated Johnson Amendment cases a handful of times.
The assault on the Johnson Amendment by some conservative Christians is trying to affect “what had been already a decade of underlying tax court decisions about what charitable institutions can do — and that means all 501(c)(3)s can do — in the political process,” said Bob Tuttle, professor of law and religion at George Washington University.
The amendment “codified the existing tax court law,” he said. “It’s not something that was just invented by Lyndon Johnson out of hostility to his opponents.”
Trump made destroying the 1954 Johnson Amendment a prominent piece of his campaign platform, continually framing it as allowing “representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear,” as he did at his first National Prayer Breakfast. And last week he told Pat Robertson on “The 700 Club” he had “really helped” evangelical Christians because he had “gotten rid of the Johnson Amendment.”
To get rid of the Johnson Amendment, Congress would have to repeal it.
But the president signed an executive order on May 4 directing the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment.
Speaking about that executive order, Tuttle said, “All that the president has done is make, effectively, this announcement that relates to this just incredibly misunderstood claim about the silencing of pastors, and they keep talking about ‘we’re going to restore your free speech rights’ and all that.
“Well, you have your free speech rights as a pastor. You can go out and campaign for someone. You just can’t use the resources of your religious organization to do it.”
The 2018 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill now is headed to the U.S. House of Representatives for a vote.
(RNS national reporter Adelle M. Banks contributed to this report)