Republicans may be hoping to use a sweeping spending bill to blur the lines between church and state. House Republicans quietly slipped a provision aimed at curbing enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, a law that prohibits all organizations exempt from paying federal income tax from endorsing political candidates, into a bill funding the Treasury Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission among other agencies. Specifically, the provision would deny the IRS the funds to enforce the Johnson Amendment, potentially enabling churches and other tax-exempt organizations to publicly endorse or oppose politicians without fear of repercussion.
According to the Associated Press, the move represents an attempt to "starve" the law, which Republicans have long failed to repeal, prohibiting churches and other such non-profits from endorsing or backing a political candidate. For 63 years the Johnson Amendment has prohibited all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations — be they churches, charities, or other — 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." Those organizations found to have violated the law risk having their tax-exempt status revoked.
House Republicans have reportedly argued that churches should have the First Amendment right to endorse a political candidate without their tax-exempt status being threatened. "I believe that churches have a right of free speech and an opportunity to talk about positions and issues that are relevant to their faith," Ohio's Republican Rep. Jim Renacci told the Associated Press.
But Democrats have voiced concerns the recently added provision will begin to blur the line separating church and state and could potentially open the door to tax-exempt religious institutions funding political candidates. Others have spoken out against the potential for religious organizations and institutions to be pressured or blackmailed into endorsing certain candidates through things like delayed grants or permits.
Others have questioned the bill's failure to mention groups other than churches. According to the Associated Press, the bill states specifically that the IRS would be prohibited from using funds to see the Johnson Amendment is enforced agains "a church, or a convention or association or churches" unless Congress is notified and the move is cleared by the IRS commissioner. "All they care about is the Christian groups, and in particular, it will end up as the extreme religious right Christian groups," Nick Little of the Center for Inquiry told the Associated Press. "If this goes through, this would add just another way in which unregulated dark money could be used."
Yet House Republicans aren't the only members of the GOP hoping to see the Johnson Amendment scrapped. After vowing to "totally destroy" the Johnson Amendment, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in May that fell significantly short of that goal.
Entitled the Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty, the order asks the IRS not to take action against churches that speak "about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office." Meaning churches can continue to speak out on various political issues as long as they refrain from endorsing or opposing candidates outright.
The provision denying the IRS funds to enforce the Johnson Amendment was tacked on to the bill by a House Appropriations subcommittee, which passed the legislation Thursday.