When Republican leaders in the House of Representatives unveiled their tax legislation earlier this month, the measure included a harmful provision that would severely weaken the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that prevents all tax-exempt organizations – including houses of worship, charitable nonprofits, foundations and others – from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
The bill’s language would exempt houses of worship (but not secular nonprofits) from the ban on partisan politicking. It’s a dangerous proposal that would not only transform houses of worship into political campaign tools but open up the possibility of billions of dollars in tax-deductible donations being diverted to political uses.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis warned that undermining the Johnson Amendment would divide congregations.
During the House Ways and Means Committee markup of the bill yesterday, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) offered an amendment to strip the harmful language from the bill. Lewis, a longtime champion of the Johnson Amendment who worked to defeat a similar measure in Congress 15 years ago, explained: “This bill before us would pit neighbors against neighbors, worshippers against worshippers, and volunteers against volunteers.”
Lewis was joined by other members of the committee expressing concerns over the impact of opening up churches to political influence. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) stated that the Johnson Amendment is important for “preserving the independence and integrity of religious organizations and charities.”
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) expressed concern that houses of worship will become nothing more than political ads, saying “I hope we haven’t reached the point where the minister, rabbi, or imam, will reach the end of their sermon and have to say ‘I approve of this message.’”
And U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisc.) warned that weakening the Johnson Amendment “has the potential of tearing at the very fabric of our communities.”
Despite the overwhelming support for the Johnson Amendment among faith leaders, religious and denominational organizations, nonprofits organizations, and the majority of Americans of all political affiliations, the Lewis amendment failed on a party-line vote of 16-23.
We need to continue to fight to remove this provision from the House bill. Passage would allow candidates, campaigns and donors to pressure faith communities to endorse candidates. It would also divide congregations, setting houses of worship against each other along political lines. In short, the language in this bill would fundamentally alter the relationship between church and state and turn houses of worship into political operatives.
The language weakening the Johnson Amendment remains intact in the tax bill that will soon go to the House floor for a vote. Now is the time to contact your U.S. Representative and tell him or her that you support the Johnson Amendment and don’t want to see it crippled by allowing houses of worship to endorse or oppose candidates.