April 2017 Church & State - April 2017

Opposition Mounts To Trump’s Call To Allow Church Election Intervention

  AU admin

Religious and secular groups are speaking out against President Donald J. Trump’s call to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that prohibits non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

Trump blasted the no-politicking rule during the Feb. 2 National Pray­er Breakfast, and Religious Right groups have joined the chorus.

But a wide cross-section of people and groups have spoken out in favor of upholding the current law. On March 8, Americans United joined 85 other organizations, many of them faith-based, in issuing a letter to Trump, urging him to leave the tax code alone.

“Changing the law jeopardizes the public’s confidence that their charitable contributions would be used for these universally valued purposes rather than mere partisan politics,” the letter said

A prominent trade group that represents non-profits also opposes the change. The Association of Fundraising Professionals warned that a repeal would negatively impact philanthropy: “Donors give to support charitable causes, from curing a disease to ending homelessness to countless others. They expect their gifts to support that cause through programs and services. … But if a donor knows the charity is supporting political candidates that he or she opposes, why would they give? And what happens to the tax deductibility of their gift if part is used to support a political candidate?”

Louisiana State University law professor Philip Hackney and Ohio State University accounting professor Betty M. Phillips noted in a Newsweek article  some of the difficulties in repealing or tweaking the law, such as increased demand for the IRS to de­­te­rmine whether organizations are truly houses of worship and their level of politicization; blurring the lines between non-profits and political organizations; and an expansion of “dark money” in campaign finances.

“Even modest changes to the amendment in this direction are risky and could lead to unintended consequences tantamount to ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater,’” they warned.

In The Wichita Eagle, columnist Davis Merritt also warned of turning houses of worship into political action committees: “Imagine how quickly charities and churches of all sorts would be converted into de facto political parties – or even created out of whole cloth – if the nation’s biggest political spenders could launder their millions in a way that was, unlike many political action committee contributions, both secret and tax deductible.”

Retired Alabama pastor Robert Wilkerson in an editorial published by AL.com, a statewide news site, wrote that repealing the amendment would erode church-state separation and damage houses of worship.

“Most people do not want their pastors or churches endorsing politicians or parties, and the results have been tragic when it has happened,” Wilkerson observed. “Politics is a dirty business filled with lies, bribery, and cheating. Such dirt should not be brought into a place of worship. Politics are divisive; they create labeling of people, radicalism, and alienation. Churches do not need division; they need unity.”

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