Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Trump wants to let churches get political. But some really don't want to.

by Kellan Howell

April 12, 2017

WATCH | Pastors can sometimes get political from the pulpit, but when they endorse candidates they may be crossing a line in the U.S. tax code. President Trump wants to change that, but not all religious groups are on board.

The Johnson Amendment

At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, Trump promised to "totally destroy" the Johnson Amendment. What is that? It's a provision of the U.S. tax code that Congresses passed in 1954 prohibiting religious leaders and groups from campaigning from the pulpit.

Religious groups and other charitable organizations are not allowed to maintain their tax exempt 501(c)(3) status if they endorse a candidate or contribute to political campaigns.

Violation of free speech?

Critics of the amendment say the restrictions on religious groups' political activity can have a chilling effect. They argue this could be considered a bridge on pastors' and other religious leaders' free speech rights.

"One of the things that has happened specifically to churches and specifically to pastors is often times they feel like the IRS is restrictive of their rights to be fully engaged in the political process," said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

"I can't tell you how many times I've talked to pastors at churches who are trying to just be very careful with the law and they feel very hamstrung about what they can say from the pulpit," Schlapp added.

He said conservative pastors and churches have been particularly chilled by the amendment in the years since the IRS targeted conservative Tea Party nonprofits.

Letter to Congress

Not all religious groups are on board. Last week over 100 faith organizations, including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, sent a letter to Congress urging them not to change the Johnson Amendment.

"Current law serves as a valuable safeguard for the integrity of our charitable sector and campaign finance system," the groups wrote.

Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, said repealing the amendment could create divisions in houses of worship.

"We might start seeing a First Baptist Republican Church and a first Baptist Democratic Church," she said.

Money in politics

Tyler and other faith leaders also argue that the fight over the Johnson Amendment isn't about free speech, it's about campaign finance.

"If a church as a group decides they want to get in to all of the political mess and start endorsing candidates and giving to candidates, they can do that now, they just have to give up their 501(c)(3) tax status," Tyler said.


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