Religious groups urge Congress to retain Johnson Amendment

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

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WASHINGTON—A broad-based religious coalition urged Congress to reject calls for repeal of the Johnson Amendment, insisting current tax laws protect houses of worship and religious nonprofit organizations from political pressure and dangers that accompany endorsing or opposing candidates.

The geographically diverse coalition of 99 organizations—including Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and other faith traditions—sent a letter to House and Senate leaders saying the current tax code safeguards “the integrity of our charitable sector and campaign finance system.” 

“A broad section of America’s faith community is delivering a message loud and clear today: We don’t want and we don’t need a change in the tax law to pursue our mission,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

“As soon as the church joins at the hip with a particular candidate or party, its prophetic witness—its ability to speak truth to power and not risk being co-opted by the government—is hindered.” 

In addition to the Baptist Joint Committee, other groups that endorsed the letter included the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Baptist Women in Ministry, Texas Baptists Committed, the Baptist General Association of Virginia, the Alliance of Baptists and various state and regional CBF groups.

The groups are united against calls to repeal or change the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the tax code that applies to all 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit organizations. Groups that choose the most-favored tax status must refrain from endorsing, opposing or financially supporting political candidates.

“The prohibition on partisan politics has strengthened the autonomy and religious freedom of houses of worship and people of faith,” said Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“Separation of church and state means that in this country—in ways too rare elsewhere—people of all religious traditions have the ability to follow the teachings of their scripture. We strongly oppose any effort to undermine or repeal this crucial legal protection that makes our nation stronger.”

The letter, addressed to leaders of both parties and of the committees dealing with tax law, reminds Congress that houses of worship already can speak to issues, and leaders can endorse or oppose candidates in their personal capacity.

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“Current law simply limits groups from being both a tax-exempt ministry and a partisan political entity,” the letter states.

“Most pastors know that endorsing candidates would divide their diverse congregations, distract from their core purpose, and dilute their message,” Tyler said. “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. Churches are not political action committees, nor should they be.”

Polls consistently show vast majorities of Americans and members of the clergy do not want tax-exempt nonprofits engaging in political campaigns. Most recently, Independent Sector’s March 2017 research revealed 72 percent of all Americans want to keep the current law. 

Based on reporting by Cherilyn Crowe of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

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