Please tell your member of Congress to oppose recent proposals to fulfill a dangerous promise President Trump made before his campaign: to repeal the Johnson Amendment.
Named for Lyndon B. Johnson, who sponsored the bill as senator, the Johnson Amendment prohibits tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) groups, including churches, from engaging in partisan, political activities. Thus, it safeguards U.S. democracy by ensuring that tax-exempt money (which is essentially subsidized by taxpayers) is not used for political purposes.
At the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2, President Trump vowed that he would "get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment." This repeats a pledge that he has made several times in the past.
A day earlier, top GOP lawmakers, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, introduced a bill to comply with Trump's plan. H.R. 781 would allow churches and other nonprofits that have tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code to speak out about political campaigns "if such statements are made in the ordinary course of carrying out its tax exempt purpose."
This is a more insidious version of an almost identical bill introduced in the beginning of January. H.R. 172 also aims to "restore the free speech and the First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment." Adding to this flurry of ominous legislative activity was a portion of a leaked executive order draft obtained by The Nation which seeks to freeze all enforcement of the of the Johnson Amendment.
FFRF opposes any repeal or modification of the Johnson Amendment. Churches are singularly exempted from reporting to the IRS what they do with their tax-free donations. (All other (c)(3)s, such as FFRF, are required to fill out an annual tax return reporting what we do with our tax-exempt gifts.) If this amendment were recklessly repealed, churches in particular could act as PACs by turning tax-exempt donations into dark money with no accountability.
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Without the Johnson Amendment, official church doctrine could include which candidate congregants must vote for. The most pernicious aspect of church-politicking is the power which religious leaders hold over the mind of the individual. Willing churchgoers could be excommunicated for failing to adhere to church voting doctrine or, far worse, a congregant might believe they will suffer eternal torture if they vote for the "wrong" candidate.
The Johnson Amendment isn't a threat to our democracy. But allowing tax-exempt churches to engage in political campaigning would be. It would open the door to further unregulated money in our politics with zero accountability. Because of their lack of accountability, were tax-exempt churches allowed to engage in electioneering, they could essentially turn into money-laundering operations for political candidates. The result would make the Citizens United fallout look like child's play. Our secular republic would be at stake.
For more background, check out FFRF's video explaining the Johnson Amendment.