WASHINGTON (RNS)—More than 4,000 religious leaders signed a letter urging Congress to maintain the Johnson Amendment—the law that bars churches from endorsing political candidates without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.
“As a leader in my religious community, I am strongly opposed to any effort to repeal or weaken current law that protects houses of worship from becoming centers of partisan politics,” reads the letter faith leaders who support church-state separation delivered to Congress Aug. 16. “Changing the law would threaten the integrity and independence of houses of worship.”
The letter signed by a wide range of clergy and lay members—from Methodists to Muslims to those who hold metaphysical beliefs—was spearheaded by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. About one-fourth of the individuals who signed the letter are Baptists.
“We have heard an outcry from faith leaders across the country about changing the tax law to encourage churches to issue campaign endorsements,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee. “They are concerned that weakening the Johnson Amendment would divide their communities and distract from their mission.
“In response, we worked with other groups to create this platform for leaders to lift their individual voices. This effort is ongoing, and I encourage clergy and lay leaders to join these 4,000 early-adopters in sending a strong message to Congress.”
Following up on a campaign promise, Trump vowed in a National Prayer Breakfast speech in February he would “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear.”
In a Rose Garden ceremony on the National Day of Prayer in May, he signed an executive order asking the IRS not to enforce the amendment, which allows it to strip the nonprofit status from any tax-exempt organization that endorses a political candidate or participates in a political campaign.
In July, the House Appropriations Committee voted to keep language in a spending bill that would defund IRS efforts to enforce the amendment. The House and Senate must pass the bill before it can be signed into law by the president.
The letter-signing initiative started before the introduction of that language as religious leaders responded to the president’s vow to get rid of the law, said Maggie Garrett, Americans United’s legislative director.
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The letter notes there is nothing in current law that bars faith leaders from supporting or opposing political candidates in their personal capacities.
“Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines,” said the letter signers from all 50 states. “Particularly in today’s political climate, engaging in partisan politics and issuing endorsements would be highly divisive and have a detrimental impact on congregational unity and civil discourse.”
With additional information provided by Cherilyn Crowe with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.