The religious right, with a big boost from President Donald Trump, is close to effectively ending a 63-year-old law banning churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
House Republicans have quietly inserted into a spending bill a provision that limits the Internal Revenue Service’s ability to investigate religious organizations for violating the law.
Since 1954, under a provision championed by Lyndon Johnson, then a U.S. senator who would go on to become president in 1963, non-profits, including churches, universities and foundations can lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in overt political activity.
The Johnson amendment has been particularly irksome to conservative religious movements, who have been gaining clout since the late 1970s.
The Moral Majority, which was an important political force in the late 1970s and 1980s, was co-founded by Jerry Falwell, a Baptist minister. In 1988, Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, sought the Republican presidential nomination. Republican White House hopefuls have for years eagerly courted the evangelical vote. Clergy are permitted to preach on issues of concern and churches can issue voter guides that offer views on issues.
Falwell’s son is now president of Liberty University, a Virginia-based school which bills itself as the world’s largest Christian university. Political candidates have routinely made widely-noticed appearances there during election seasons, and Falwell’s backing of Trump days before last year’s first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus was an important boost to the campaign.
Trump has continued to vigorously court the religious constituency. In an interview with Robertson last week, the president said he’s been a boon to the evangelicals who supported him because “I’ve gotten rid of the Johnson Amendment” and “now we’re going to go try and get rid of it permanently in Congress.”
He didn’t exactly get rid of it, but he’s getting close. In May, Trump signed an executive order that aimed to give churches more ability to speak out politically. Evangelicals criticized his action as too vague.
Republicans in the House are trying to correct that. They’ve included language in a must-pass spending bill that details how the Treasury department and other agencies will be funded after October 1, the start of the new fiscal year. A vote on the bill is expected before Congress leaves for its summer recess next month. Its Senate prospects are unclear.
The provision would prevent the IRS from investigating a church unless the IRS commissioner signs off and notifies Congress.
“Why should ministers, whether they be in a synagogue or a church, or any other place of worship, have their freedom of thought and speech suppressed?” asked Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who worked to include the language in the bill.
“Frankly, it’s offensive for the IRS to try to squelch the thought or political speech of a pastor or minister,” Culberson said.
Mark Harris, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, called the measure to weaken the Johnson amendment “a step in the right direction” though he would prefer that it be repealed.
Harris has participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an initiative begun in 2008 by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative non-profit group, in which pastors take to the pulpit to protest the Johnson amendment.
“Limiting the freedom of the pulpit, limiting what a pastor can preach is a terrible thing,” said Harris, a Republican who’s running against incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary near Charlotte, North Carolina, said, “I think this will help thaw out the chilling effect that this has on freedom speech for churches and religious groups, a chilling effect aided and abetted by liberal and progressive groups who use the Johnson amendment to intimidate conservative Christians, Protestant and Catholics, from expressing their views on public policy issues.”
Not all faith leaders agreed. A group of more than 100 faith organizations sent a letter to appropriations committee leaders opposing the change.
“Weakening current law would allow politicians and others seeking political power to pressure churches for endorsements, dividing congregations and opening them up to the flow of secret money,” they wrote.
Though Land, who served as a member of Trump’s Evangelical Faith Advisory Board, supports a weakening or repeal of the Johnson amendment, he did not think churches or religious organizations should endorse political candidates.
He said the change will force pastors to take a stand on tough issues.
“A lot of religious leaders have cherished the Johnson amendment because it keeps them from having to take a position on a controversial issue which might divide their constituents,” he said. “It will take away a lot of their camouflage. They will have one less excuse for being a profile in caution.”
Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit organization, said the change would give churches “special treatment” over other tax-exempt non-profits.
“That’s the kind of favoritism that the First Amendment was designed to prevent,” she said.
A bipartisan effort to strike the language by Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., failed last week. Their effort was defeated, 28-24, mostly along party lines. Two Republicans, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Scott Taylor of Virginia joined the committee’s 22 Democrats in voting to remove the provision from the bill.
“Congressman Dent believes that a change in long-standing precedent of this magnitude should not be made in the course of the Appropriations process,” Dent spokesperson Shawn Millan said in an email.
William Douglas of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
Contact: Anshu Siripurapu at 202-383-6009. Twitter: @anshusiripurapu