Hidden inside the 429-page Republican tax bill is a provision that will fulfill a longtime promise by President Donald Trump to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a law forbidding churches from endorsing political candidates.
The amendment has been a target for Evangelical and other conservative Christian groups for years, saying it has a chilling effect on what pastors feel comfortable saying from the pulpit. While on the campaign trail last year, Trump promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment.
“I don't want the IRS looming over our faith leaders in the community as they express their religious freedom,” said Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, the lead Republican working on the bill, in a statement to Vox.
Proponents of the Johnson Amendment, however, say it has been instrumental in shielding charitable organizations from partisan politics.
“Eliminating the Johnson Amendment for churches will enable religious organizations use their tax-exempt donations to support election campaigns,” said Jason Lemieux, Center for Inquiry director of government affairs, in a statement to Vox. “It is so transparently cynical, it would be hilarious if it weren’t so damaging to America’s secular democracy.”
What is the Johnson Amendment?
Enacted in 1954, the Johnson Amendment, named for then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, says 501(c)(3) groups can lose their tax-exempt status if they are found to have endorsed, actively opposed or contributed to a political candidate.
The IRS has been charged with keeping track of claims, but it is rarely enforced and the Johnson Amendment has never been used to strip a church of its tax-exempt status.
Given the lack of enforcement, studies have shown the amendment doesn’t actually do much to preserve the separation of church and state.
A Pew Research Center study from last year found it’s actually pretty common to hear a pastor make political statements at the pulpit — about two-thirds of regular churchgoers say it happens.