Congress stealthily permitting church electioneering


Congress is engaging in cloak-and-dagger tactics to thwart public opinion with a sneaky attempt to undermine a more than 60-year-old prohibition on church electioneering.

Nearly 4,500 nonprofits signed a joint letter to Congress in opposing repeal of the Johnson Amendment, a move that would be disastrous for the nonprofit sector and for campaign finance. A repeal is so widely unpopular that fully 79 percent of Americans oppose pastors endorsing candidates from the pulpit.

But rather than go along with the public consensus, House Republicans have now tried to hamstring the Johnson Amendment through a provision buried 116 sections deep in the House Financial Services appropriations bill . The provision reads: “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used by the Internal Revenue Service to make a determination that a church, an integrated auxiliary of a church, or a convention or association of churches is not exempt from taxation for participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office unless” and is followed by a series of restrictions meant to ensure that no church is ever penalized for violating the law. Specifically, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue must personally consent to enforcement, must notify Congress of the IRS’ intent to enforce the law, and must then wait 90 days before making a determination against the church.

Note that these additional protections against enforcement are only contemplated for churches and associations of churches, but not for other nonprofits, who are equally bound by the Johnson Amendment. The result is unequal treatment under the law — a preferential boon to churches in violation of the Constitution’s separation between religion and government.

In May, FFRF testified before Congress on the dire implications of scuttling the Johnson Amendment.

“In short, overturning the Johnson Amendment would make the Citizens United decision look trivial and nominal,” it said. “If the Johnson Amendment is repealed, millions, possibly billions, will inevitably flow into and out of churches for political purposes.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a legal challenge in May against President Trump’s “religious liberty” executive order.  The order and Trump’s repeated statements clearly communicated to churches that they can now endorse political candidates from the pulpit, hence undercutting the Johnson Amendment via the executive branch. Congress is now intent on the same result legislatively. 

Defunding enforcement is no different than overturning it, and FFRF condemns any attempt to give churches special treatment.

“Theocrat-loving members of Congress are surreptitiously trying to chip away at the wall of separation,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “But we will not allow them to get away with this.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nonprofit membership organization that advocates for the separation of church and state and educates on matters relating to nontheism. It has more than 29,000 members residing in every state of the United States, including 1,200-plus in Wisconsin, as well as members in the District of Columbia.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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