Columns Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion Politics

No, getting rid of the Johnson Amendment is not part of the GOP tax bill

Lyndon B. Johnson during his tenure as Senator from Texas and before becoming Vice President

In deference to President Trump’s wishes, House Republicans have tacked onto the end of their 429-page tax bill what is being denounced by the left as a revocation of the so-called Johnson Amendment, the provision of the tax code that bars non-profits from participating in partisan political campaigns.

“Scrapping the Johnson Amendment would undermine both church-state separation and religious freedom. It would also undermine our democratic system, which is already awash in unaccountable, undisclosed dark money,” said Interfaith Alliance president Rabbi Jack Moline.

Chill, rabbi. The provision represents at most a minor concession.

The Johnson Amendment denies tax exemptions to non-profits that “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” (26 U.S. Code § 501 (c) 3)

The GOP proposal would provide a limited exemption for religious institutions, in a way that has  been done, for example, in exempting them from reporting obligations imposed on other non-profits, under 508(c)(1)(a) of the tax code. The proposed exemption says there could be no violation of the Johnson Amendment

solely because of the content of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings, but only if the preparation and presentation of such content–

(A) is 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.

The idea, in other words, is to permit pastors to give a sermon that endorses, say, Donald Trump for reelection. But organizing phone banks or door-to-door canvasing, or taking out ads or publishing materials on a candidate’s behalf would still fall within the ambit of the Johnson Amendment.

That pastoral endorsements of candidates — direct and indirect — have been going on for a long time nobody should doubt. And they’ve been going on not only on behalf of Republicans in conservative evangelical churches but also in black churches, where Sunday visits by Democrats running for office are normal and customary.

The IRS has never bothered with endorsements of this sort. To the extent that it has concerned itself with Johnson Amendment violations, it’s been with those activities that would continue to be disallowed.

At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, Trump promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. The House bill’s provision does nothing of the sort. It amends the Amendment. Slightly.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

2 Comments

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  • Frankly I would like to see political free zones where anything political must be kept to a certain area. Almost like a smoking area so people do not have to be bombarded by all the nasty fallout. So as far as the Johnson amendment, I support anything that limits the discussion of politics up to and including public areas.

  • So because it wasn’t really enforced in the past (removing tax exemption for churches that explicitly or implicitly endorse candidates from the pulpit), it makes it ok to remove the provision entirely?

    Any sort of exemption the church gets from provisions that other non-profits abide by is an example of religious privilege. Churches should be held to the same scrutiny, otherwise the balance between government-religion tips in favor of one over the other.

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