Jul 19, 2016

The Republican Party platform approved yesterday includes a call for altering federal law to allow houses of worship to jump into partisan politics. This change threatens religious life in America, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The platform advocates repeal of the Johnson Amendment, a provision adopted by Congress in 1954 that prohibits 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, non-profit organizations, including houses of worship, from intervening in partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

Asserts the platform, “We value the right of America’s religious leaders to preach, and Americans to speak freely, according to their faith. Republicans believe the federal government, specifically the IRS, is constitutionally prohibited from policing or censoring speech based on religious convictions or beliefs, and therefore we urge the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.”

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, blasted the proposal as “short-sighted, reckless and corrosive to religious life.”

“The Republican platform seeks to turn America’s houses of worship into miniature political action committees,” Lynn said. “I can’t imagine a more disruptive idea for our nation’s religious community or a real impediment to campaign finance reform.”

Lynn noted that the ban on partisan politicking encompasses many non-profit groups, religious and secular. The idea behind it, he said, is to ensure that the desirable benefit of tax exemption is awarded only to organizations that operate in the public interest, not partisan entities. (Lynn pointed out that the amendment bars only endorsement or opposition of candidates. Speaking out on issues is permitted.)

The proposal, Lynn said, would further divide Americans. He pointed out that several polls have shown that Americans overwhelmingly oppose partisan politicking in houses of worship.

“Religious communities are places Americans can go to escape the partisan divide of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ that has polarized our nation,” Lynn said. “Repealing the ‘no-politicking’ rule would inevitably lead some houses of worship to focus on supporting candidates in exchange for financial and other aid.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has backed the proposal. While introducing his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, on July 16, Trump remarked, “And I said -- and I said for the evangelicals, that we're going to do something that nobody's even tried to do. You have the Johnson Amendment passed by Lyndon Johnson and his group....And we call it the Johnson Amendment….We put into the platform, we’re going to get rid of that horrible Johnson Amendment. And we're going to let evangelicals, we're going to let Christians and Jews and people of religion talk without being afraid to talk.”

Trump has also reportedly promised Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, that he will seek repeal of the Johnson Amendment.

The issue is currently under consideration in Congress. Republicans in the House of Representatives have added a rider to an appropriations bill (H.R. 5485) that would make it harder for the IRS to enforce the Johnson Amendment.

Americans United’s Project Fair Play seeks to educate Americans about the law banning partisan activity by houses of worship and religious non-profits and urges religious leaders to comply with these provisions.