Once again, efforts are under way in the U.S. House of Representatives to undermine the Johnson Amendment, which is the provision in the tax code that ensures that all tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, do not endorse or oppose candidates. Despite the fact that the Johnson Amendment is popular among faith and nonprofit leaders because it protects the integrity and independence of our houses of worship and charitable nonprofit organizations, some – including President Donald Trump – continue to try to repeal and weaken it.
The House Appropriations Committee held a debate yesterday on the appropriations bill that provides funding for governmental entities including the IRS, the District of Columbia and others. Included in that bill is a provision, Section 112, that would severely weaken the Johnson Amendment.
Section 112 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. Not only would this provision effectively halt enforcement of the law, but because it provides special treatment for houses of worship, it would also likely violate the First Amendment.
During yesterday’s committee meeting, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) offered an amendment to strike Section 112 from the bill. In doing so, she stated: “Regardless of our political stripes and colors, and regardless of our religion, no one wants our houses of worship to be torn apart by partisan campaign politics.” She also highlighted the letters from thousands of concerned organizations and individuals from the nonprofit and faith communities who oppose weakening or repealing the Johnson Amendment.
The amendment was co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who told the committee that “Section 112 of this bill is designed to give religious organizations, in violation of the First Amendment, special tax benefits and privileges that aren’t available to other tax-exempt organizations.” She also noted that “as a person of faith I can attest to the fact that I do not want my place of worship to become overly politicized.”
Other members of the committee also spoke in support of the amendment to strike the provision that would weaken Johnson Amendment language. U.S. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) stated that the Johnson Amendment upholds our core value of religious liberty, noting that “congregations currently have ample freedom to speak out on political and social issues” under the law and that weakening it would “threaten rather than enhance the freedom of religious institutions.”
U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) expressed concern that Section 112 of this bill “goes too far putting us on a dangerous path,” undermining the nonpartisanship of tax-exempt organizations. She closed by saying that keeping partisan campaign politics out of our houses of worship is something on we should all be able to agree “[o]n constitutional grounds, on the grounds of common sense and decency.” U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) indicated that Section 112 would violate the separation of church and state and would introduce “divisive themes … into the unified environments that religious organizations strive to build, thereby undermining their core objective.”
Despite the support by so many members of the committee, the amendment to remove the Johnson Amendment language failed along party lines by a vote of 21-28. The committee vote and debate was similar to what transpired last year when Wasserman Schultz and Lee introduced an amendment to remove a nearly identical section from the Fiscal Year 2018 appropriations bill. Like last year, the funding bill will now move to the House floor for a vote with the harmful Johnson Amendment language included.
Thanks to the efforts of religious organizations, faith leaders, the nonprofit community, and our own AU members, we were successful in keeping language weakening the Johnson Amendment out of the final spending bill for Fiscal Year 2018. We need your help again to ensure another successful outcome. To learn more about the Johnson Amendment, check our Project Fair Play, and to take action, see our action page on how you can contact your Members of Congress to support the Johnson Amendment.