Religious groups battle over Johnson Amendment as House Republicans eye last-minute repeal

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House Way and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas). (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Johnson Amendment, a provision in U.S. tax code that prohibits religious groups and 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing, opposing or contributing to political candidates, has stood for more than six decades without much resistance.

That changed with the election of President Donald Trump, who promised to “totally destroy” the law. In May 2017, Trump signed an executive order to promote free speech for religious groups. Though the order did not overrule the longstanding law, Trump’s rhetoric emboldened a small group of conservative Christian groups to fight for a repeal.

An overwhelming majority of religious and nonprofit groups oppose repealing or weakening the Johnson Amendment. A group of 4,300 religious leaders opposed the repeal effort last year, saying the law “protects houses of worship from becoming centers of partisan politics.”

Another coalition of more than 5,800 charitable and religious organizations sent a “Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship” to Congress earlier this year. An August poll found that just 13 percent of Americans supported “allowing religious leaders to endorse candidates while retaining their tax-exempt status.”

That wave of opposition successfully defeated repeal efforts over the last two years, but a new tax bill from Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) once again includes a repeal of the amendment. The effort never seems to die out completely, and it follows two years of lobbying from a handful of conservative religious organizations.

The National Religious Broadcasters, a group that represents Christian media professionals and “enthusiastically” endorsed Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, advocated for the inclusion of a repeal in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 and spent more than $51,000 on lobbying between 2017 and 2018. The repeal ultimately didn’t make it into the final bill.

“The sword of the Johnson Amendment has been permitted to dangle dangerously over the heads of pastors and charitable leaders for too long,” the group’s President Jerry Johnson said in a 2017 statement.

The Pat Robertson-founded Christian Coalition supported a repeal of the Johnson Amendment in 2017 and 2018 in its lobbying disclosure forms. Once an extremely powerful voice in American politics, Christian Coalition spent $6.4 million on lobbying in 1998 but experienced a consistent decline. It spent $54,000 in the last two years, with almost all of its lobbying efforts advocating for Republican policies.

Another conservative Christian group, the Family Research Council, has pushed to change the law, arguing 501(c)(3) groups should be able to advocate for candidates and contribute to them as long as it falls within the organization’s purpose. The group spent $65,000 lobbying between 2017 and 2018, with most of its attention going to bills relating to religious freedom and abortion.

Several groups, including Public Citizen, Anti-Defamation League, Common Cause, National Council of Nonprofit Associations and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, lobbied against changes to the law.

A wide variety of groups have weighed in on the issue, including arts organization Opera America, which argued a repeal “would pressure charitable organizations to take sides in partisan political campaigns and would erode the public trust in organizations that exist to serve community needs.”

With the growing prevalence of “dark money” in state and federal elections, experts say a full repeal of the Johnson Amendment would make things darker.

Campaign Legal Center Director of Federal Reform Brendan Fischer argued a repeal could release “super dark money” into elections by encouraging special interests to funnel anonymous money through 501(c)(3) organizations to get a charitable tax deduction.

The nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the U.S. Treasury would lose $2.1 billion by weakening the amendment, as political donors shift their contributions to a new kind of dark money group to get a tax break.

The House Rules Committee will meet Wednesday to consider the bill. It’s unclear whether it will pass the House before the lame duck session ends, as a large number of GOP Representatives have already left the building.

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