Editor’s Note: This week, “The Wall of Separation” blog continues its series of special posts examining the policy proposals in AU’s “Agenda to Restore & Protect Religious Freedom.” Developed by Americans United’s Public Policy Department, the agenda lists 10 proposals the incoming administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris can take to undo the damage done to church-state separation during the Trump years.
The Johnson Amendment is a provision in the federal tax code that protects the integrity and autonomy of tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, by ensuring they do not endorse or oppose political candidates. President Donald Trump spent his presidency undermining the law and falsely claiming that he got “rid of” it. That is why AU’s Agenda to Restore & Protect Religious Freedom asks the Biden-Harris Administration to protect and enforce the law.
The tax code grants special tax-free status to religious, nonprofit and charitable organizations because they work for the common good. The Johnson Amendment recognizes that these organizations can and should be able to speak out on political, social or moral issues, but they may not endorse or oppose candidates with tax-deductible dollars.
Without the limitations put into place by the Johnson Amendment, taxpayers would essentially be forced to subsidize the political campaign activities of churches and other nonprofits. In this way, the Johnson Amendment protects the independence of houses of worship, safeguards the integrity of our charitable sector and supports the fairness of our electoral process.
What’s more, Americans overwhelmingly do not want their charities and houses of worship to be torn apart by partisan campaign politics. Polls demonstrate that the vast majority of Americans – including Democrats, Independents and Republicans; faith leaders, religious and denominational organizations; and secular nonprofits and charities – support the Johnson Amendment. Americans simply don’t want political candidates invading their houses or worship and deepening the divides that already exist in their congregations, organizations and communities.
Nonetheless, Trump began attacking the Johnson Amendment during his first presidential campaign. Then, during the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, he pledged to "get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment." Later that year during the National Day of Prayer ceremony at the White House, he signed an executive order aimed at limiting the IRS's ability to enforce the law.
Although Trump and members of his administration encouraged and even participated in campaign events that violated the law, the reality is that neither Trump’s statements nor his executive order ultimately had any effect on the law. Today, the Johnson Amendment remains intact.
We urge the Biden-Harris Administration to continue to defend the Johnson Amendment from attacks by policymakers who would try to weaken or repeal it. We also hope the new administration will robustly enforce the law so that our charities and houses of worship remain free from partisan campaign politics.
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