Editor’s Note: For the next two weeks, “The Wall of Separation” will be recounting the top 10 church-state stories from 2022. We begin the series today with a look at a recent poll showing that Americans overwhelmingly support the Johnson Amendment.
The American people made one thing clear about the Johnson Amendment in 2022: They don’t like it when partisan politics invades our houses of worship. A poll released Oct. 27 by the Pew Forum found that 77% oppose houses of worship intervening in partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. That number has actually increased in recent years.
But here’s another thing that’s clear: The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has not been very diligent in enforcing the federal law that bars partisan politicking by nonprofits.
That law is called the Johnson Amendment. It’s named for former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who sponsored it when he was a U.S. senator in 1954. The provision covers all nonprofits that hold 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, which includes houses of worship.
AU’s Long Involvement In Protecting The Johnson Amendment
Americans United has been monitoring violations of the Johnson Amendment for decades. During the 1992 presidential election, AU reported a church in New York that ran full-page ads in newspapers telling people not to vote for Bill Clinton. The IRS stripped the church of its tax-exempt status. At the time, it was reported that this was the first time in history that ever happened. (Federal courts later upheld the IRS’s action.)
The IRS put increased emphasis on educating nonprofits about the Johnson Amendment in the 1990s and warned a few other churches about activities that crossed the line. But for various reasons, by the end of the 2000s the IRS’s enforcement and educational activities around the Johnson Amendment dried up. Then Donald Trump, in his efforts to garner the support of Christian nationalist leaders, constantly attacked the Johnson Amendment during his presidency, sowing disinformation and confusion about the law.
It’s time for that to change.
Recent Johnson Amendment Violations
A recent report by the Texas Tribune and ProPublica was headlined, “Churches are breaking the law and endorsing in elections, experts say. The IRS looks the other way,” which pretty much sums up the situation. The story quoted AU’s Andrew Seidel about the dangers to the integrity of our elections and nonprofits if the law is not enforced: “If you pair the ability to wade into partisan politics with a total absence of financial oversight and transparency, you’re essentially creating super PACs that are black holes.”
In May, Americans United wrote to the IRS and urged officials there to look into the activities of Pastor Greg Locke, a Tennessee religious leader and Christian nationalist extremist best known for burning books in bonfires.
During a May 15 sermon, Locke told his congregation, “You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation” and “If you vote Democrat, I don’t even want you around this church. You can get out.”
Violations of the Johnson Amendment don’t come much clearer than that. If the IRS, which received a huge influx of new funding under the Inflation Reduction Act, is looking to reinvigorate its enforcement of the amendment, that’s a good place to start.
The American people are waiting.