The House of Representatives, just back from its August recess, is poised to pass a major spending bill. Tucked within that bill is Section 116, a provision that would make it nearly impossible for the Internal Revenue Service to investigate tax-exempt houses of worship that have endorsed or opposed political candidates in violation of the Johnson Amendment. The fate of that provision could be decided today.
The Johnson Amendment 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. This is integral to protecting the integrity and independence of houses of worship and charities: no one wants their house of worship or charities divided by elections or turned into tools of political candidates and campaigns.
Faith leaders and activists recently told members of Congress not to undermine the Johnson Amendment.
Section 116 of the Financial Services and General Government 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, this special process would only apply to houses of worship that violate the law, not secular organizations. This preferential treatment for religious organizations violates the Constitution.
A few weeks ago, when the House Appropriations Committee took up the bill, U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), with the support of 108 national organizations, offered an amendment to remove the language.
After a passionate debate, every Democrat on the committee and two Republicans voted in its favor. The amendment, however, did not pass, and the language weakening the Johnson Amendment remains in the bill.
Now the bill is before the House Rules Committee. Today, this committee will begin hearings to decide which amendments the full House can consider when the bill hits the floor.*
Three amendments would remove Section 116 from the bill. Wasserman Schultz and Lee reintroduced their amendment to strike the language from the bill. U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who led the floor fight to defend the Johnson Amendment against an effort by U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) to repeal it in 2002, has also offered an amendment to strip the language. And, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) has submitted an amendment to remove the provision as well.
The Rules Committee should accept one of these amendments to strip the language in order to give every member of the House the opportunity to vote in favor of it on the floor.
U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), on the other hand, wants to make it even more difficult to enforce the law. He offered an amendment that would prohibit the government from spending any money to enforce the current law. The Rules Committee should reject this amendment.
The vote in the House Appropriations Committee demonstrates that there is bipartisan support to remove the language. In addition, letters from 5,500 non-profit organizations, 4,000 faith leaders, and 99 religious and denominational organizations oppose efforts to weaken the law. And polls show the American public is in the same place.
If you want the Rules Committee to protect the Johnson Amendment, there is still time for you to contact your representative. You can do so here.
*UPDATE — Sept 8th, 2017: The Rules committee did not rule any amendments regarding the Johnson Amendment in order. The House will vote on the bill without any opportunity to remove the provision.