May 2018 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Americans United received a rare double dose of good news in late March after Con­gress pas­sed a large spending bill that contained no new voucher plans and no language undermining or repealing a federal law that prevents houses of worship from intervening in partisan elections.

Known as the “omnibus,” the bill will fund the operations of the federal government through September. It’s an enormous legislative package that carries a hefty price tag of $1.3 trillion.

Bills this big tend to become the legislative equivalent of a Christmas tree – lots of things get thrown on them. Indeed, in the days leading up to the bill’s passage, Americans Uni­ted was hearing scuttlebutt that the measure would likely include language undermining or repealing entirely the “no-politicking” law, known as the Johnson Amendment.

The provision, passed in 1954 after efforts by then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas), makes it clear that all nonprofit, tax-exempt groups that hold 501(c)(3) status under the Internal Revenue Code may not intervene in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates. The blanket ban affects houses of worship, nonprofit educational institutions, museums, public policy groups and a host of other organizations.

Although polls show that the Am­er­i­can people overwhelmingly support the Johnson Amendment, Religious Right groups have been trying to get rid of it for years. In 2016, they gained a powerful ally when Donald Trump was elected president. While on the campaign trail, Trump vowed to overturn the law, a promise he has repeated since taking office.

During the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. He later issued an executive order that he claimed did undermine the amendment but that in fact did little. (As a federal law, the Johnson Amend­ment can’t be nullified by an executive order.)

Some members of Congress picked up Trump’s crusade and tried to insert language undermining the Johnson Amendment into last year’s sprawling tax bill. They succeeded in getting it into the House version of the legislation, leading Americans Uni­ted and its allies to spring into action. AU’s efforts were successful, and the Senate didn’t include the anti-Johnson Amendment language in its version of the bill.

Rumors continued to circulate that Johnson Amendment foes might try again and use the omnibus as their vehicle. But in the end, it didn’t pan out. 

The omnibus is also free of new voucher plans. AU and groups that support public education feared that pro-voucher forces in Congress might use the omnibus to create a national voucher program. Trump, backed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has proposed spending $1 billion on vouchers over the next two years. There was talk in Washington that the omnibus might contain a down payment on that by allocating $250 million for a direct voucher plan or the creation of voucher-like education savings accounts.

Recent missteps by DeVos may have hurt her pro-voucher cause. DeVos’s standing in the nation’s capital is low, and she’s widely viewed to be in over her head. DeVos did herself no favors when she appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” March 11. During an interview with Lesley Stahl, DeVos seemed to have little grasp of education-related policy. Her performance was widely panned as a disaster. (“Train wreck” was one of the more polite terms used to describe it.)

A few days later, DeVos testified before a House subcommittee and was grilled specifically about vouchers.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was among several House members who demanded to know why Trump’s budget focuses so much on vouchers. “We shouldn’t be siphoning off federal dollars to pay for vouchers,” DeLauro told DeVos.

U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) pres­sed DeVos about a 2017 Government Accounting Office report that shows private schools taking part in voucher programs fail to give accurate information to parents of students with disabilities about the rights they forfeit by enrolling in such schools. U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) asked DeVos to explain why tax dollars should support voucher programs, like the one in Wisconsin that funds failing schools with few accountability mechanisms.

U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) asked DeVos why federal dollars are going to private voucher schools that don’t follow the same civil rights laws as our public schools. 

“I cannot find a single state that protects LGBT students within vouch­er programs,” Clark said.

Several media outlets noted that DeVos sought to slash the Education Department’s budget and ax a number of programs that help low-income students, all while pursuing a costly voucher plan. Congress rebuffed her, and the omnibus actually boosts department spending.

The omnibus is not perfect. It continues funding for a controversial (and ineffective) voucher plan that was forced on the District of Col­umbia by Congress in 2003. Americans United has opposed that plan from day one and would like to see it defunded. That did not happen this year, but AU took heart in the fact that the omnibus contains no new voucher funding.

After the bill passed the House and Senate, there was an odd coda: Trump threatened to veto the entire bill because he didn’t like some of its policies concerning immigration. Trump issued a tweet threatening to veto the bill, but a few hours later he signed it. Had Trump followed through on the threat, the federal government would have faced a shutdown.

Although Americans United is pleased that the omnibus was free of new voucher plans and attacks on the Johnson Amendment, the group knows that fights over these issues could resurface.

“We have to keep our guard up,” said Maggie Garrett, AU’s legislative director. “Thanks to our members and supporters, we were successful in keeping dangerous proposals like new voucher plans and attempts to undermine the  Johnson Amendment out of the omnibus. But we know these issues, and other threats to church-state separation, could return in other legislation.”

Americans United members who want to stay informed about legislative threats to church-state separation should sign up for AU’s action alerts.