While the public largely focuses on the Russia investigation involving President Trump and his administration, Republican leaders are steadily stripping away some of the most crucial campaign finance laws on the books. After essentially giving corporations and unions the same rights as people in the disastrous 2010 Citizens United decision, will the Supreme Court allow those rights to be extended to tax-exempt non-profit organizations like churches? It will if the president and his cronies have his way. The president has already signed an executive order trying to weaken the Johnson Amendment, which specifically forbids 501(c)(3) organizations like churches from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns that support or oppose a candidate. Now, the House is brazenly trying to destroy the amendment altogether.
On August 30, 2017, End Citizens United issued a press release strongly opposing the current administration’s attempts to strip away the most crucial protections offered by the Johnson Amendment, which was introduced by then U.S. Senator Lyndon Johnson. Johnson, of course, would go on to become president. In the release, Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United, warned that the move would turn “churches into tools for secret campaign spending.” And that’s not all; should this come to pass, tax-free money wouldn’t just be funneled from religious groups to political candidates–those who donate to those churches receive tax deductions as well.
Introduced by LBJ in July 1954, the Johnson Amendment was close to the future president’s heart as he had been viciously attacked and labeled a communist by non-profit organizations during his Senate campaign. Incredibly, given the furor that it is causing today, the amendment wasn’t controversial at all at the time that it was passed. Under its terms, 501(c)(3) organizations like churches, charities and universities risk losing their tax-exempt status by participating in political campaigning.
#JohnsonAmendment has protected churches and charities from being manipulated by big political mega-donors. GOP wants to change that and give their big donors more ways to buy our democracy.
— End Citizens United (@StopBigMoney) November 14, 2017
For a long time, the Johnson Amendment remained a non-issue, and churches and other tax-exempt entities largely accepted it as a part of the separation of church and state that is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Contrary to what many believe, however, the amendment doesn’t completely prohibit such groups from being involved in politics. They are still permitted to weigh in about political causes or to even organize events to support a side. For example, churches have long held voter registration drives, as they are regarded as being non-partisan in nature. The amendment, which was signed into law by President Eisenhower, is suddenly at risk of losing its intended purpose.
The spirit of the Johnson Amendment is to prevent donors from funneling political contributions disguised as tax-exempt religious donations to political causes that they support. Should the amendment be stripped of its power, it will be easy for anyone to donate money to a church or other tax-exempt organization not necessarily to support that organization’s stated goals but to ensure that the money gets to political groups. The donated money is treated as a tax-exempt donation, so donors can receive tax deductions as well. Without question, this will become the preferred method for funneling tax-free money to political causes.
Although the Johnson Amendment wasn’t controversial when it was enacted, it has slowly but surely become more of a thorn in politicians’ sides in recent years. In fact, organizations have even been founded with the express purpose of flouting the law. The Alliance Defending Freedom, for example, a conservative group, runs a campaign called Pulpit Freedom Sounding that encourages pastors and others to protest and ignore the amendment. Although the IRS has audited at least one of the participating churches, none has been assessed any penalties–and that won’t even be a possibility if the Johnson Amendment goes away.
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While most Americans don’t know much about the Johnson Amendment or its significance, Donald Trump has been all over the issue since long before he was elected president. In fact, repealing the Johnson Amendment was one of his campaign promises. In May, he signed an executive order that discourages the IRS from enforcing the amendment, stating that the purpose was to “defend freedom of religion and speech.” While executive orders are meaningless unless they are handled properly, Trump was clearly setting the stage and signaling to his supporters that they would soon be able to contribute funds even more easily–and without having to pay taxes.
Contrary to what some assume, members of Congress haven’t enacted a bill specifically seeking to alter the Johnson Amendment. Knowing that doing so would put the issue far too much into the public eye, they have tried sneaking it in with other legislation at least once before already–and they are at it again right now. Indeed, the current tax overhaul bill includes a provision that specifically exempts religious organizations from the purview of the Johnson Amendment. Should it pass, other 501(c)(3) organizations would continue to technically be beholden to the law.
This is just the latest in what has been a long line of battles for End Citizens United, which was founded in 2015 in direct response to the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision. That decision opened the floodgates to allow dark money to be funneled wherever donors want it to go, as it essentially gave corporations the same freedom of speech rights as individuals. Since being founded, End Citizens United has worked tirelessly to have the 2010 decision overturned, and it has thrown its support behind candidates who are fighting to fix the rigged campaign finance system.
End Citizens United Works to Protect Johnson AmendmentRegardless of what happens regarding the Johnson Amendment, there is no question that these attempts to further strip away the separation of church and state will continue. Even if the rider is eliminated from the bill, or if the bill doesn’t go through at all, the same groups will be back finding ways to destroy the Johnson Amendment. This is yet another example of why groups like ECU have their work cut out for them now and will continue to long into the future. Anyone who is concerned about these developments is encouraged to support groups like End Citizens United in their fight against big money and special interests.