By Ken Reynolds
In his talk to religious leaders at the National Prayer breakfast in February, the president vowed “to destroy” the Johnson Amendment. His vow is not a surprise. The 2016 Republican Platform supports repeal. A bill to change the law has been introduced in the House.
If you are among those who attend church in hope of solace and to worship among people of like beliefs, you may want to consider carefully what the president is vowing to destroy. Repeal has potential impact on every tax-exempt organization, including churches, charities and service clubs.
The party platform characterizes the amendment as an infringement upon the free speech right of churches to participate fully in the political process. That is a legal argument properly addressed by a person more qualified than I.
The amendment addresses tax exempt organizations, not individuals. Religious leaders and laymen often express political views in church and in the press. The amendment does not prohibit organizations from supporting or opposing a cause or a specific law or regulation. It prohibits supporting or opposing a candidate.
The Johnson Amendment became a part of the federal tax code in 1954. The IRS website summarizes the prohibition: . . . all section 501(c)(3) organizations 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.
As in almost all historical events, there is debate about origins of the law. Some details, however, are clear. The roots of the amendment date to a 1930 federal court decision. The ruling became a part of the tax code in 1934, but it included the ill-defined, and challengeable phrase “no substantial part.”
After World War II, especially in the late 40s and 50s, political contests were highly contentious and fraught with fear of communism’s influence and its infiltration of our government. Senator Lyndon Johnson, for whom the amendment is named, believed certain not-for-profit organization(s) supporting the far right, were a significant force of opposition to him.
There is debate as to whether Johnson intended the amendment to apply to churches. That question, also, is better left to legal scholars to argue. Intent rarely changes the impact of an action on reality.
My concern is the potential negative impact repeal will have within and upon organizations registered as tax exempt. The list is far too long to include here, but I venture if you are reading this column you are a member, volunteer and/or supporter of a church, service club or charity.
The reality of political views is that they tend to be deeply held, and challenges to them can be threatening and highly divisive. Immeasurable bloodshed has resulted from such differences.
If any conviction is more basic and emotional than politics, it is religion. Churches are founded and organized upon and around intensely held beliefs. The differences between, and within, religions are not a small matter. Even within an individual congregation, different views cause tension and discord.
Twice, and I am grateful that is has been only twice, I have witnessed congregations being torn apart by differences of belief in what the church should or should not be doing. They were not pleasant experiences. For many members, the rifts never healed. With all my heart, I hope I never again see anyone, particularly my friends, go through a similar experience.
Americans, including pastors, have a right to express political beliefs. We have the right to assemble and jointly express those views and to try to persuade others. In recent years, it has become almost impossible to escape hearing political views touted or attacked, except in the privacy of our homes.
Churches, charities and service clubs that are not permitted to be political may be our last sanctuaries. We should treasure them. Knowingly creating a path to the probability of a rupture within a group joined by belief and a common purpose is courting destruction of more than an amendment to a tax law.
Few political moves are as simple as they first appear. Repeal of the Johnson Amendment will presage a major shift in political contributions from parties and individuals to tax exempt entities. Follow the money. Why make a taxable contribution to a candidate if you can make a tax-deductible donation to a church or charity that backs your candidate? The question is particularly relevant if the donor is in the higher tax brackets.
The Free Speech Fairness Act (H. R. 6195) was introduced in September 2016: “To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to allow charitable organizations to make statements relating to political campaigns if such statements are made in the ordinary course of carrying out its tax exempt purpose.”
The bill sponsors included a provision that the statements do not result “. . . in the organization incurring not more than de minimis incremental expenses.”
If, H. R. 6195 becomes law, it may or may not, alleviate concerns about the flow of money through churches and charities to politicians. However, it does not lessen my concerns about divisiveness. It does the opposite.
I hope we have not become so enamored of politics that we want our church or favorite charity to become a political club, or worse, a front for politicians. Why would we?
Photo credit: Roadside church and cemetery, Old US Route 22, Greenwich Township, Berks County. Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli via Flickr