Trump’s plan to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment creates a huge campaign finance loophole for churches to exploit
Trump’s hard play for the religious right is a gift to big donors who want less transparency in campaign financing
President Donald Trump appears steadfastly committed to his campaign promise to repeal one of the clearest legislative examples of the separation of church and state in this country, recently repeating his vow to allow churches to engage in political activity while retaining their current tax-exempt status — opening the door for religious groups to become big-time partisan players in U.S. elections.
According to the IRS’ website, churches and other nonprofit organizations that are exempt from taxation “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.” Specifically, ministers are restricted from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. If they do, they risk losing their tax-exempt status, under terms of 1954 legislation named for its principal sponsor, then-senator Lyndon Johnson.
Churches, charities and educational institutions are tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS code, which not only exempts a group’s income from taxation, but also allows it to receive tax-deductible donations.
Under the so-called Johnson Amendment, religious leaders remain free to engage in political and social speech outside of the church.
Still for many on the religious right, repealing the amendment appears to be an issue of religious freedom. And President Trump is determined to appease the evangelical base that propelled him into office.
“Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us,” the thrice-married Trump told religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, after he asked them to pray for his “Celerity Apprentice” replacement Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings. “That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
Even though only Congress can repeal the law, Trump has repeatedly pledged to personally do away with the restriction. Trump argued on the campaign trail that religious organizations “have much to contribute to our politics,” telling a group of Christian leaders the amendment “prevents [church members] from speaking your minds from your own pulpits” — conflating political campaigning and religious worship.
He told a crowd in Iowa in August, “It denies your pastors their right to free speech, and has had a huge negative impact on religion.”
One of the biggest applause lines of the Republican National Convention last summer was Trump’s call to repeal the amendment. For the first time, the repeal of the half-century-old tax law was adopted into the official GOP platform.
Allowing churches to express political opinions isn’t the main concern of critics of Trump’s proposal to do away with the longstanding law, however. At issue is whether a tax-exempt institution can engage in electioneering and retain its tax-exempt status, according to Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.