Magazine article Church & State

Prayers or Politics? President Donald Trump Wants to Allow Houses of Worship to Intervene in Partisan Elections Yet Remain Tax Exempt

Magazine article Church & State

Prayers or Politics? President Donald Trump Wants to Allow Houses of Worship to Intervene in Partisan Elections Yet Remain Tax Exempt

Article excerpt

The good news: Legislation introduced over the past two years that would have opened the door to politicking from the pulpit expired in early January with the 114th session of Congress.

The bad news: At least one legislator wasted no time in re-introducing a bill that would roll back the so-called Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofit organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

On Jan. 3, the first day the new 115th Congress was in session, U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) introduced H.R. 172, legislation that he says aims "to restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment."

The amendment is named after former president Lyndon B. Johnson, who was still a U.S. senator representing Texas when he spearheaded the move to amend the tax code. His amendment states that tax-exempt non-profit groups are "absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."

The full text of Jones' bill was not yet available at Church & State's press time, but there's no reason to suspect it will be substantively different from a bill with the same description he introduced along with fellow North Carolina congressman U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson in January 2015.

In fact, with only one exception, Jones has introduced similar legislation during every session of Congress since 2001.

Jones' last bill proposed to remove language from the tax code that prevents nonprofits from participating or intervening in political campaigns by endorsing or opposing specific candidates.

Typically, Jones' proposals have withered and died on the vine, rarely getting beyond the initial referral to the Ways and Means Committee, the House body that oversees tax writing.

In 2002, during the first session in which Jones introduced what he then called the "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act," the bill came up for a vote by the full House. It failed in a fast-track, late-night voting attempt that required a two-thirds majority in order to pass. The measure did not garner even a simple majority of supporters.

But much has changed over the past 14-plus years. Most notably, the issue of church electioneering became prominent during the 2016 presidential campaign, with Donald Trump repeatedly making promises to repeal the Johnson Amendment once he was in office.

"So, if I get elected president, one of the early things, one of the absolute first things I'm going to do, is work on totally knocking out the Johnson Amendment," Trump told a gathering of conservative pastors during the American Renewal Project's Pastors and Pews event in Orlando in August.

The issue even was included in the Republican Party's 2016 platform: "(W)e urge the repeal of the Johnson Amendment."

Jones' bill was joined by two related bills during the last congressional session, both in September 2016:

* H.R. 6195, the "Free Speech Fairness Act," was cosponsored by U.S. Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Jody B. Hice of Georgia, both Republicans. Their bill aimed to amend the tax code to state a nonprofit would not lose its tax-exempt status if it made political statements during the "ordinary course of the organization's regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose" while not incurring significant cost.

In other words, under the Scalise/Hice approach, a pastor could endorse a candidate from the pulpit, but the church couldn't spend a lot of money on campaign activities.

* H.R. 6086, the "Protecting Religious Expression Against Censorship and Harassment Act of 2016," was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). His bill specifically addressed houses of worship, saying they shouldn't be considered as participating in political campaigns "because of the content, preparation, or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings. …

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