Tomorrow, the House Appropriations Committee will be debating the Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) Appropriations bill, which includes a section with language aimed to weaken the Johnson Amendment, a law that protects the integrity of houses of worship and nonprofits by ensuring they do not endorse or oppose political candidates.
Section 112 of the FSGG bill would make it incredibly difficult for the IRS to investigate houses of worship that have violated the Johnson Amendment. It would require consent from the IRS commissioner for each investigation, notification to two committees in Congress and a 90-day waiting period before such investigations could commence. These hurdles would slow down, if not entirely halt, any investigations and further politicize them. In addition, because this special treatment applies to houses of worship and not to secular organizations, the provision likely violates the First Amendment.
This is just the latest in a series of attempts by Congress and the administration to weaken or repeal the Johnson Amendment. We’ve been fighting back against numerous attempts by this administration and Congress to weaken the Johnson Amendment. We've been successful so far in keeping any language to repeal or weaken the Johnson Amendment out of the tax bill last year and out of the fiscal year 2018 appropriation bill.
That’s why Americans United and allies are fighting to protect the Johnson Amendment. We sent a letter to the committee urging them to strip section 112 from the bill.
And you can help us, too. Join us in speaking out: If your Representative serves on the House Appropriations Committee, they need to hear from you. Email them today and tell them that you support the current law that prohibits all tax-exempt organizations from endorsing and opposing candidates.
AU also joined a coalition letter from 145 national organizations to tell Congress to not weaken the Johnson Amendment through the appropriations bill.
“Weakening current law would allow politicians and others seeking political power to pressure churches for endorsements, dividing congregations, and opening them up to the flow of secret money,” the letter states. “We must keep this valuable safeguard that protects our houses of worship, our charitable organizations, and our political process.”
Additionally, lawmakers are expected to push back. U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) are expected to introduce an amendment to strip harmful language that weakens the Johnson Amendment from the FSGG bill. Last year, the committee narrowly voted down a similar amendment from Wasserman Schultz and Lee that would have removed anti-Johnson Amendment language from the 2018 FSGG bill.
“Regardless of our political stripes and colors, no one wants our charities or houses of worship to be torn apart by partisan campaign politics. And no one wants their first amendment rights ripped away from them,” Wasserman Schultz said when she introduced the amendment last year. “As people of faith, we cannot allow this effort to politicize our sanctuaries of worship to move forward. And as federal lawmakers, we have a responsibility to ensure equal justice, liberty and protection for all people.”
Wasserman Schultz is right, and that’s why weakening the Johnson Amendment continues to be unpopular. More than 4,500 faith leaders don’t think the Johnson Amendment should be repealed or undermined. Neither do a majority of Americans, 5,800 non-profit organizations and more than 100 religious and denominational organizations. Polls have shown time and time again that repealing or weakening the Johnson Amendment is very unpopular with the American public.
Americans United supports the amendment because it protects the integrity of houses of worship and our elections. Current law ensures that houses of worship aren’t transformed into political tools by candidates seeking power. That’s likely why the vast majority of Americans believe houses of worship should stay out of partisan campaigns.
Houses of worship, like all tax-exempt organizations, can speak out about political and social issues. But they can’t endorse political candidates or parties. If members of the clergy want to endorse candidates, they can do so in their own individual capacity.
To learn more about the Johnson Amendment, AU’s decades-long fight to protect it, and what we’re doing now to continue to support the Johnson Amendment, visit Project Fair Play.