Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cripple the IRS’ ability to enforce the Johnson Amendment – the law that ensures tax-exempt nonprofits, including houses of worship, cannot endorse or oppose candidates. The bad news is we lost the vote 24-28: The House Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) Appropriations bill will move to the House floor with a provision that makes it nearly impossible for the IRS to investigate houses of worship that violate the law. We will now have to fight to remove it on the floor.
The good news is the amendment offered by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and co-sponsored by Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) had bipartisan support. All of the Democrats on the committee and two Republicans – Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and Scott Taylor (R-Va.) – voted in favor of the amendment. In addition, seven members of the Committee spoke passionately of the need to keep the Johnson Amendment strong.
The Johnson Amendment, which has been part of the tax code for six decades, protects the right of houses of worship and other tax-exempt organizations to speak out about political and social issues while, at the same time, ensuring they are not pressured by political candidates and campaigns to take a side in divisive partisan elections. It is widely supported by religious and denomination organizations, faith leaders, and other non-profits, as well as the vast majority of Americans.
Section 116 of the FSGG appropriations bill, however, would make it incredibly difficult for the IRS to investigate churches 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 of the U.S. Constitution.
Yesterday, Wasserman Schultz offered her amendment to strip the provision and protect the Johnson Amendment. She explained:
“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. 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.”
Lee echoed that sentiment, explaining, “In order to protect the integrity and independence of churches and houses of worship and faith-based charities, we need to ensure that they do not endorse or oppose political candidates and become politicized.” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) emphasized that the amendment is needed because the bill gives “houses of worship special treatment in the enforcement of IRS restrictions on interventions in political campaigns, the amendment raises serious concerns under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and undermines religious freedom.”
Reps. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) also spoke in favor of the amendment. Both agreed that it was important to protect houses of worship and other nonprofit entities from being used as political tools. Clark explained: “The Johnson Amendment is common sense and to get rid of it now would have dire consequences for our democracy.”
Some members also pushed back at the false claims of those who want to weaken the Johnson Amendment. Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) pointed out that houses of worship have robust free speech rights under the Johnson Amendment, which “should be clear to all of us from churches, synagogues, mosques in our district, that engage in social justice movements and voice their well regarded opinions to us regularly.” And Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) exclaimed: “I doubt that any of us have experiences that match the worst case scenarios that we hear from the Religious Right. I just don’t think it happens.”
Weakening the Johnson Amendment, however, would cause real problems for churches, said Price: “What we do not want, though, is to legitimate using religious institutions as simply a conduit for political contributions or for candidate or party-centered political advocacy.” He warned that if churches “are seen, though, as an extension of campaigns or institutions that are exploited by campaigns, I think that removes that moral force and makes this something that we live to regret.” And he urged, “that we all consult our common sense and our common experience on this matter before we take the step to bring partisan, candidate-centered politics into our churches.”
But even with those compelling and passionate statements, Section 116, which makes it nearly impossible for the IRS to enforce the Johnson Amendment, remains in the bill. Its next step is the House floor.