When Americans United Faith Organizer Bill Mefford road-tripped to North Carolina recently to speak at churches for a series of work­shops on religion and politics, he knew bridging the gap between faith leaders and church-state separation would be an opportunity.

“The heart of all justice work is relationships,” Mefford said, and indeed, building relationships became thematic throughout his Sept. 19-23 trip.

So when Jennifer Copeland, who heads the North Carolina National Council of Churches, teamed up with local AU leaders Allison Mahaley, Rollin Russell and Phillip Allen to host the workshops at churches, she shared her concerns about the sometimes difficult relationship between religion and politics.

That’s why Copeland was pleased that Mefford and AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett visited churches in Greenville, Durham, Char­lotte and Asheville to educate faith leaders and laypeople about the dangers of partisan politics in houses of worship. The events drew more than 70 participants and were sponsored by AU’s Orange-Durham Chapter, Western North Carolina Chapter, Raleigh Chapter and the state Council of Churches.

“The feedback we are receiving from attendees across the state indicates these workshops were helpful for our allies on several fronts,” Cope­land told Church & State. “The basics of the law were informative for all. More importantly, however, attendees were equipped to speak boldly about our faith … to speak truth to power and to amplify the voices of the marginalized.”

For Allen, AU’s Western North Carolina Chapter president, something really stuck out: the importance of church-state separation advocates establishing relationships with faith leaders. He was pleased to see AU reaching out to houses of worship to educate and answer questions.   

“We will never make progress if we do not talk with those who do not agree with us,” Allen told Church & State. “We must develop relationships, even if and when we do not agree with those that oppose our views. We may find that we have a lot more in common than we do differences.”

The issue of partisan politics in houses of worship has been highlighted this year like never before, in part due to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s repeated calls to repeal the federal law that bars tax-exempt, non-profit entities from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates.

AU and other critics say Trump has spread the misconception that the government has suppressed church leaders’ First Amendment rights.

“The first thing we have to do is give our churches their voice back,” Trump told attendees of the Religious Right’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., in September. “It’s been taken away. The [law] has blocked our pastors and ministers and others from speaking their minds from their own pulpits. If they want to talk about Christianity, if they want to preach, if they want to talk about politics, they’re unable to do so. If they want to do it, they take a tremendous risk of losing their tax-exempt status.”

In other speeches, Trump has attacked a provision sponsored by then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) in 1954 that prevents non-­ profit groups, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. But the GOP hopeful has repeatedly mischaracterized the scope of what has become known as the “Johnson Amendment.” The law bars only explicit political endorsement of or opposition to candidates; it does not block the discussion of political issues by faith communities in any way. 

To fight this misinformation, AU’s Project Fair Play launched a “Week of Action,” Sept. 26-30 on the heels of Mefford and Garrett’s Tar Heel State swing. The event was dedicated to educating religious leaders and the general public about the importance of keeping partisan politics out of all houses of worship.

As part of the event, AU hosted a roundtable on Facebook Live, a video streaming service hosted by the popular social media site, Sept. 27.

“There are a lot of falsehoods and misunderstandings about the Johnson Amendment,” Garrett said during the roundtable. “A lot of people talk about the Johnson Amendment, and they say that it targets houses of worship … therefore it’s unfair to religion, but that’s just not true.”

Garrett emphasized that non-profits such as AU are also not allowed to endorse candidates. She said the significant benefit of tax exemption means that, by law, organizations must accept some rules.

“What the Johnson Amendment does is apply to all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, whether you’re a secular organization or religious organization,” she pointed out. “We support this because we believe it protects the integrity of churches and the political process … They [houses of worship] can do lots of things to engage in the political process; they just can’t endorse candidates.”

Yet, following Trump’s lead, U.S. House Republicans introduced two bills in September that would undermine the amendment.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who is House Majority Whip, and U.S. Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) put forth the “Free Speech Fairness Act” (H.R. 6195), which aims to allow houses of worship and other non-profits to endorse or oppose candidates and still retain their tax-exempt status.

A separate piece of legislation, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn’s (R-Colo.) “Protecting Religious Expression Against Censorship and Harassment Act” (H.R. 6086), is even more problematic. It would repeal the Johnson Amend­ment only as applied to houses of worship. Secular tax-exempt groups would still be barred from political intervention.

So it was no wonder that this hot election topic was the center of AU’s Q&A-style Facebook Live discussion. Garrett, Mefford and AU Executive Director the Rev. Barry W. Lynn were joined by two D.C.-area religious leaders, Rabbi Elizabeth Richman and the Rev. J.P. Hong, to discuss the consequences of pulpit politicking.

One of those consequences, the group noted, was the lack of unity that occurs when faith leaders attempt to pressure their congregation to vote for one candidate over the other.

“Imagine if in our household … my wife said, ‘You must vote for so and so, and the whole family will vote unanimously on this.’ Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, someone will be sleeping in a different room….That’s how I think about a congregation,” Hong, pastor of Charles Wesley United Methodist Church in McLean, Va., said.

Hong added that endorsements by houses of worship are dismissive of diverse thought, remarking, “As the head of a congregation … to say that we will vote this way… it’s very divisive.”

Rabbi Richman, who works for Jews United For Justice, an organization that mobilizes the Jewish community to talk about social justice issues without being partisan, con­cur­red.

“I think rabbis in many ways found a voice because they’re so careful to put a fence around anything that might be perceived as partisan, but in some ways, they’re relieved to be able to bring Jewish values [to the] public,” Richman noted. 

Lynn argued that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does not enforce the Johnson Amendment aggressively enough. Historically, he said, there are many reasons for this, but he noted that “enforcement began with some rigor.”

Lynn recounted an incident from 1992 when the Church at Pierce Creek in upstate New York placed a newspaper ad titled “Christians Beware” that warned people not to vote for then-Democratic presidential nom­inee Bill Clinton. 

AU filed a complaint with the IRS, and the tax agency revoked the church’s tax-exempt status. The church sued the IRS but lost in two federal courts. AU subsequently launched Project Fair Play. AU has filed 125 complaints with the IRS since then. 

Lynn said he’s frustrated that the IRS hasn’t acted more aggressively.

“I think it’s most unfortunate as we get into these highly partisan campaigns … obviously, we’ve been in one for the last year … that the [IRS] has defaulted on its judgment to go and enforce the law,” he said. 

Alongside Facebook Live, throughout the Week of Action AU connected with the public in other ways. AU encouraged people to sign a petition urging the IRS to fully enforce the ban on pulpit politicking and asked people to write letters to their local newspaper editors urging Congress not to repeal the Johnson Amendment.

Mefford and Garrett’s road trip the week prior embodies the work AU has been doing this election season to ensure voters are educated about church-state separation issues. 

Garrett’s presentation on the Johnson Amendment was especially informative to attendees, including Russell, president of the Orange-Dur­ham AU Chapter, although the Johnson Amend­ment wasn’t the only focus. Social justice issues drew plenty of feedback, especially since North Carolina is embroiled in a debate over its controversial “bathroom bill.”

“Seminar participants were particularly grateful for the presentations and the lively discussions that followed,” Russell told Church & State. “We found many new allies in the struggle to defend the wall of separation between church and state, and a number of participants filled out membership applications on the spot.”    

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