Language weakening Johnson Amendment removed from tax bill

(Photo/Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

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WASHINGTON—Removal of language from the Senate tax bill that would have allowed churches to engage in partisan politics without losing their tax-exempt status represents a victory for religious liberty, advocates of church-state separation insisted.

The parliamentarian of the U.S. Senate ruled that language undercutting the Johnson Amendment—a 63-year-old provision in the tax code that bars not-for-profit religious organizations from making political endorsements—would violate the Byrd Rule, which requires elements of the tax bill to pertain to the budget.

“This is a big win for churches, synagogues, mosques, all other 501(c)(3) non-profits and the people who rely on them as a vital part of our society,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

On multiple occasions in recent months, Tyler noted religious leaders are free to speak to public policy issues, but she insisted most ministers recognize endorsement of candidates would split their congregations.

“All clergy can—and do—speak out on the great moral issues of the day, but encouraging houses of worship to intervene in campaigns with tax-deductible offerings would fundamentally change them,” she said earlier. “Churches are not political action committees, nor should they be.”

The Baptist Joint Committee was among leaders of the Faith Voices coalition that urged Congress to retain the Johnson Amendment. More than 4,000 faith leaders from across the country signed a letter to Congress opposing any efforts to weaken the measure, which they insisted protects churches and other houses of worship from partisan politics.

The Johnson Amendment “has broad public support, including from faith leaders, charitable non-profits, Republicans and evangelical Christians,” said Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“The Johnson Amendment allows tax-exempt organizations to fulfill their missions by speaking out on social and political issues. At the same time, it protects them from the corrosive influence of partisan politics by ensuring they don’t endorse or oppose candidates for public office.”

Tyler asserted the language weakening the Johnson Amendment was “stuck into a huge tax bill on the fast track in the hopes that those most affected wouldn’t notice” or make their views known.

“Fortunately, as more Americans learned of the proposal and its likely impact, they raised their voices—calling and writing their representatives and senators, sharing concerns with their neighbors through local and social media, and joining thousands of faith leaders at Faith-Voices.org,” she said.

“Now all those committed to protecting the independence and nonpartisanship of our 501(c)(3) sector need to stay alert for other attempts to change the law.”

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