It turns out some religious groups aren’t quite on board with President Donald Trump’s pledge to overturn the so-called Johnson Amendment, a law that bans churches and nonprofits from endorsing political candidates.
In fact, a coalition of 99 religious groups sent an April 4 letter to Congress urging politicians to push back against Trump’s repeated pledge to overturn the law; most of the signatories are liberal, according to The Christian Post.
“We, the 99 undersigned religious and denominational organizations strongly oppose any effort to weaken or eliminate protections that prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing political candidates,” the letter opens. “Current law serves as a valuable safeguard for the integrity of our charitable sector and campaign finance system.”
The letter explains that religious leaders are free to endorse candidates on their own so long as they do not do so through houses of worship, and affirmed that pastors and other religious leaders can also address “moral and political issues of the day” from their pulpits. That said, IRS law forbids churches from endorsing or opposing candidates, as they are tax-exempt organizations.
“Current law simply limits groups from being both a tax-exempt ministry and a partisan political entity,” the latter affirms.
The signatories went on to say that they oppose any efforts to weaken the Johnson Amendment, explaining that the public doesn’t want churches to turn into places where partisan political fighting reigns. And, based on polling, the letter might be correct.
A Lifeway Research poll found last year that 79 percent of Americans oppose preachers endorsing candidates from the pulpit. That said, more than half of respondents — 52 percent — disagreed with stripping churches of tax-exempt status if they did choose to endorse. Current law under the Johnson Amendment could lead to such an issue if a church is found in violation, but the IRS has more often than not ignored infractions due to the political and social debate surrounding the issue.
Either way, the coalition behind the letter said that churches are intended to unite people, not cause division. And that’s just one of the reasons why the cohort disagrees with changing the tax provision.
“Current law protects the integrity of houses of worship. If houses of worship endorse candidates, their prophetic voice, their ability to speak truth to power as political outsiders, is threatened,” the letter continued. “The credibility and integrity of congregations would suffer with bad decisions of candidates they endorsed. Tying America’s houses of worship to partisan activity demeans the institutions from which so many believers expect unimpeachable decency.”
The text continued, “The charitable sector, particularly houses of worship, should not become another cog in a political machine or another loophole in campaign finance laws. We strongly urge you to oppose any efforts to repeal or weaken protections in the law for 501(c)(3) organizations, including houses of worship.”
It’s unclear what steps, if any, Trump will actually take to turn back the tide on the Johnson Amendment, but what is clear is that the majority of Americans don’t want to see churches in the business of endorsing candidates.
That said, the philosophical discussion over whether the government should legally constrain this right is complex, with just over half of the country opposing punishments for churches that cross the line.
One of the other issues that complicates the debate is the deep and multifaceted history surrounding the Johnson Amendment, which was adopted by Congress back in 1954. Some say that the measure, which was named after then-Texas Democrat Sen. Lyndon Johnson, was actually aimed at silencing his politics critics. You can read the entire history here.
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