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Thousands of faith leaders ask Congress to protect Johnson Amendment

Advocates and clergy deliver letters from faith leaders to Congress to keep the Johnson Amendment intact on Aug. 16, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Americans United

Advocates and clergy deliver letters from faith leaders to Congress to keep the Johnson Amendment intact on Aug. 16, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Americans United

WASHINGTON (RNS) — More than 4,000 religious leaders have signed a letter urging Congress to maintain the Johnson Amendment, a law barring pulpit politicking that President Trump has vowed to gut.

“As a leader in my religious community, I am strongly opposed to any effort to repeal or weaken current law that protects houses of worship from becoming centers of partisan politics,” reads the letter faith leaders who support church-state separation delivered to Congress on Wednesday (Aug. 16).

“Changing the law would threaten the integrity and independence of houses of worship.”

The letter signed by a wide range of clergy and lay members — from Methodists to Muslims to those who hold metaphysical beliefs — was spearheaded by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Catholic, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist organizations also were among the sponsoring groups of the letter that has signers from Alabama to Wyoming.

Following up on a campaign promise, Trump vowed in a National Prayer Breakfast speech in February that he would “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear.”

Boxes of letters from clergy who are opposed to repealing the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that bars tax-exempt houses of worship from engaging in partisan politicking, prior to delivery on Capitol Hill. Photo courtesy of Americans United

In a Rose Garden ceremony on the National Day of Prayer in May, he signed an executive order that asked the IRS not to enforce the amendment, which allows it to strip the nonprofit status from any tax-exempt organization that endorses a political candidate or participates in a political campaign.

In July, the House Appropriations Committee voted to keep language in a spending bill that would defund IRS efforts to enforce the amendment. The bill must be passed by the House and the Senate before it can be signed into law by the president.


RELATED: The ’Splainer: What is the Johnson Amendment and why did Trump target it?


Maggie Garrett, Americans United’s legislative director, said the letter-signing initiative started before the introduction of that language as religious leaders responded to the president’s vow to get rid of the law.

The letter notes that there is nothing in current law that bars faith leaders from supporting or opposing political candidates in their personal capacities.

“Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines,” said the letter signers from all 50 states. “Particularly in today’s political climate, engaging in partisan politics and issuing endorsements would be highly divisive and have a detrimental impact on congregational unity and civil discourse.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

48 Comments

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  • Hi Adelle,.miss you in Orlando! Thanks for this article. Would like to see a follow up on which Catholic organizations signed this. Given the US Bishops’ political partisanship of the past decade or so I cannot imagine the USCCB wanting Johnson to stay in place!!!!!

  • I am very thankful for President Trump’s recent executive order, which now prevents the IRS from using its attack powers (i.e. auditing) to impose raw censorship upon clergy.

    Clergy, by the way, who don’t even attempt to endorse specific candidates or political parties by name, but merely express their own approval or disapproval of public policies that a sitting president has endorsed or pushed through.

    I’m talking about what Obama’s IRS tried to do to the Rev. Billy Graham, of course. An inexcusable, nasty, anti-freedom-of-speech move. Granted, it ultimately didn’t work.

    But the mere fact that the IRS believed it could get away with such craziness, demonstrates the need to get rid of the Johnson Amendment, lest a future IRS try to bring back the good ole days.

  • The Johnson Amendment is a fig leaf seldom enforced, but it does establish boundaries. Undoing accepted boundaries can produce unexpected results. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which undid similar boundaries, is producing changes in society that are beginning to be seen as be far reaching, and to my mind harmful. The ground rules Johnson lays down are easy to abide by and do no real harm to the churches or their clergy. Freedom of speech for clergy is still protected by the Bill of Rights. The issue only ever arises when clergy deliberately test the legal boundaries, something that is totally unnecessary unless you want to pick a fight.

  • Floyd: the Johnson Amendment is much understood. It doesn’t prohibit churches from speaking out on broad issues, and doesn’t prohibit clergy from advocating or condemning policies from the pulpit. It only prohibits clergy from advocating for particular political candidates from the pulpit. In over fifty years, it has only been used to revoke tax-exempt status once.

    As for the Graham family, like thousands of other tax-exempt non-profits, Samaritans’ Purse and the Billy Graham were apparently audited in 2010. Audits are a normal part of doing business. Of course, they should not be done selectively for political purposes, but there is no evidence that was done, and I can’t find any evidence on the internet that either suffered any sanctions or penalties from those audits.

  • The IRS received complaints from a secular organization (Freedom from Religion foundation) as to activities carried out by the BGEA as to violating rules as to issue advocacy by linking to a specific candidate without specifically mentioning the candidate by name. The IRS commonly conducts investigations based on outside referrals. So don’t blame Obama.And I will say that Samaritan’s Purse is criticized for lack of transparency by charity evalutaors.

  • True, the IRS’s attempt against Billy Graham didn’t work, as noted. But clearly it was a reprisal for Graham’s public message for North Carolina voters to vote for a proposed ban on gay marriage.

    Graham had no tax or financial problems whatsoever, nor did he endorse specific candidates or even political parties. So there is no known basis for the IRS audit at all, other than Graham’s public endorsement of an anti-gay-marriage bill.

    In the aftermath of “the controversy surrounding the audit”, Obama accepted IRS commissioner Miller’s resignation. (Assuming that Miller wasn’t just the fall guy.)
    But it’s clear now that the Johnson Gig needs to be put out to pasture.

  • Oh yes, the good ole, true-blue, God-honoring activists of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. No surprises there, Linda.

    Generally, the FFRF is to First Amendment religious freedom, what Dr. Zin was to Jonny Quest. (Namely, The No-Good Rot-Gut Crooked Villain!)

    At any rate, the FFRF knew that Graham hadn’t endorsed any specific persons or parties, nor had any tax woes. But THEY wanted censorship, as they always do. So they went to the IRS who should have said No. But *somebody* went for the Audit Weapon instead.

    And that’s why I always say, “Obama’s IRS.” This audit occurred near the height of Obama’s Big Crusade to legalize gay marriage. So did Obama give the green light? Or was it just IRS chief Miller, acting on his own? Nobody really knows, though Obama announced Miller’s resignation because of the “controversy.”

  • The question of what clergy say from the pulpit is small potatoes compared to other consequences of weakening this amendment. It also means that tax exempt money can go from religious organizations, fake and real, to candidates. This would be a handy tool if you want to disguise the identity of your contributors. That’s Trump’s real prize if he manages to make the repeal stick. So religious people, how do you feel about religious institutions funding politicians — untaxed and untraceable.

  • I think it is a big mistake for religious organizations to get involved in the partisan politics of this or any nation. This is a big problem in the Middle East and other places. Advocating a particular religious belief become the law of the land brings us a Christian version of Sharia. Is that what we need in a democracy and in a world that is becoming more open, with people moving from one land to another, from one culture to another?

  • Keep the Johnson amendment or religion will die because the most vocal will destroy the rights of the others, as they have always done. Rev. Douglas K. Peary

  • floyd:
    I can’t find any mention that Billy Graham himself was audited. It seems that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritans Purse, both organizations with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars were audits. Big organizations get audited from time to time. We wouldn’t say that charities should be exempt from audits to make sure they are following the law, would we?
    IF these were audited for political payback, that is already illegal and doing away with the Johnson Amendment won’t change anything.

    Are you concerned about how doing away with the Johnson Amendment would corrupt churches, by:
    1) Give individuals interested in politics a financial incentive to launder their political money through churches to make it tax deductible?
    2) Tempt clergy and churches into corruption by allowing political parties and politicians to offer clergy or churches donations at the same time they are asking them to endorse them in a sermon?

  • You use “God-honoring” (sic) as though it were a term indicating probity and a truly moral compass – it isn’t.

    As to Samaritan’s Purse – we regularly advise local schools that SP adds incorrect/sect-specific items to any boxes created by pupils and advise them of secular alternatives.

  • FFR is actually an advocare for the First Ammendment by going after what it believes to be violations. The courts usually rule in their favor but most government organizations yield because they know they are in the wrong. But whether the FFR is successful or not, the First Ammendment gets tested and refined and everyone has to play by the rules.

  • Thank you AU and BJC for leading this effort. It should be plain that our constitutional separation of church and state is the best way to protect the religious liberty of all of us. — Edd Doerr

  • Congress can repeal or not repeal but they can not “protect” the Johnson Amendment, for it is an unconstitutional law. It will be dead on arrival at the SCOTUS and THAT is why it is a fig leaf seldom enforced.

    If faith leaders don’t like political endorsements from the pulpit, and there are of course good reasons not to, then they simply shouldn’t engage in it in their churches. Or alternatively, they should introduce and try to sell a constitutional amendment creating an exception to the 1st Amendment.

  • The Johnson Amendment has no bearing on freedom of speech. Everyone is free to say whatever they want. A tax exemption, however, is a privilege, not a right.

  • It’s doubtful the resignation of the IRS Commissioner had anything to do with the Graham family business’ grifting.

  • Exactly wrong. Government is not required to grant a tax exemption to churches at all, but if they do they can not remove it from one church as a penalty for the pastor’s exercising his freedom of speech. This is a textbook example of a speaker identity restriction as discussed in Citizens United and the cases it drew upon. No chance of it surviving a Supreme Court challenge.

  • This is not to the point, but since I have the reputation of being a strict constructionist with regard to spelling and grammar, and regularly call out my adversaries when they error, I have to call out my friends as well. It ought to be spelled “Johnny” Quest. Just sayin’. Other than that keep swinging.

  • Exactly why Citizens United is a bad decision. Thank you. It is not realistic to expect a court case regarding the Johnson Amendment to proceed anytime soon.

  • I believe in the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution including freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression. If the “thousands” of religious leaders don’t want to speak on political issues then don’t, but it is no their right or the government’s right to infringe on those who do. Personally would not want to attend a church (if I were so inclined) where a preacher or priest were so pontificating, but I would not begrudge their constitutional right to do so.

  • The freedom from religion foundation is certainly not agenda free. It is indisputable based on empirical evidence that they have an ax to grind against one particular flavor of religion.

  • I notice there sure are a great many liberal congregations and minority dominant congregations who host major candidates (c.f. Hillary, Obama) during national election cycles to speak out of their pulpits on Sunday mornings. In fact my sister was once in attendance at one of Obama’s presentations. She raved about it. That said, I never understood how this was not a violation of the Johnson amendment and why the IRS never seems to investigate these hosted gatherings.

  • Just give up your tax free status, and speak away.

    Oh, wait. That means giving up power and money and dominion as well. Can’t do that.

  • That’s because the other flavor of religinarent trying to make people live according to their dictates, but to allow everyone to live according to their own dictates.

  • Or they can simply remove all tax exemptions for churches. That would solve everyone’s problems, except for the grifters.

  • Then let’s remove it for all churches, every one of them. Then we can become Northern Ireland, and give everyone a bad case of ulsters.

  • Knock yourself out. And we can at the same time remove it from all the lefty non-profits who openly endorsed Hillary. Then the Dems can scramble even harder for campaign money than they are already doing.

  • Whatever you personally think of CU, it is not going away and neither is free speech. And I DON’T expect a Johnson Amendment case to go to the SCOTUS soon, simply because the government will not take it there knowing that it will be struck down in short order. It will therefore remain an unenforced “fig leaf” to be disregarded with relative impunity.

    We should quit the fussing about inconsequential nonsense like the Johnson Amendment and confederate statues and make Congress get after things the people actually care about, such as healthcare reform and immigration.

  • Not to mention that the civil rights movement would never have gotten off the ground were it not for the black churches.

  • A quick search on your part would have discovered that it is “Jonny Quest”. A boyhood favorite of mine. Other than that little boo boo, keep swinging.

  • Hmm. I will confirm that, if you are correct and I’m in error…what is it the media usually says, “________ regrets the error.” My apologies to floydlee. and darn it, I found a misspelling of my own in another post. That typically happens when I’m too tired and in a hurry. Closer self editing and research is in order.

  • Which religion? The shrinking religious left, that is on its way to extinction?

    They spend so much time being “relevant,” they fail to notice how empty their pews are.

  • One of your books has TWO reviews on Amazon.

    You’re really making a splash in the book world. Those Unitardians must be into their cannabis more than their libraries.

  • I like to give people the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. In the context of my comment however, I was giving Spuddie a ribbing. We do that sometimes.

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