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Guests listen as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2 in Washington. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

People of goodwill can disagree on matters of public policy—even if they're ordained clergy, and the public policy under debate has the potential to affect the way they conduct their ministry.

The issue is the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 rider inserted by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson into that year's version of the tax code banning all federally recognized nonprofit organizations—including religious organizations—from endorsing candidates and otherwise participating in partisan political activity at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.

The Republican Party made repeal of the amendment a plank in its 2016 convention platform, and President Donald Trump vowed Feb. 2 at the National Prayer Breakfast to "get rid of and totally destroy" the Johnson Amendment.

Rep. Jody Hice, R-Georgia, a second-term congressman and a co-sponsor of the Free Speech Fairness Act, as the Johnson Amendment repeal bill has been named, is a former Southern Baptist minister who thinks repeal is a good idea.

Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, believes repeal would create more problems than it tries to solve.

Until about a decade ago, "I would receive threatening letters" from the IRS that said "we would lose our tax-exempt status if we reviewed political issues," Hice told Catholic News Service Feb. 3. Those letters, he added, were "very threatening, very chilling."

Then, in 2008, Hice said, he and 32 other clergy issued endorsements from their pulpits, recorded those endorsements, sent them to the IRS and challenged them to do something about it. The IRS never responded, so Hice was part of a group—this time numbering 160—that did the same thing the next year. Again, no response. Now, every year, the Alliance Defending Freedom coordinates a similar event.

"Churches have censored themselves right out of participation, right out of keeping their congregations informed," Hice said. With the Johnson Amendment repealed, "you could address the issues, in my case, from a biblical perspective, and actually endorse a candidate (whose views) that we as a congregation share without fear of losing tax-exempt status or being threatened in any way."

Hice added the bill would not permit churches to conduct political activities outside of "the normal course of your ministry." "No-full-page ads" in newspapers would be allowed, although putting something in the church bulletin is OK, he said.

Rabbi Moline, though, believes the opposite to be true.

The bill "would make religious institutions destinations for dark money for political purposes. Since they are 501(c)(3) (shorthand for a federal rule governing nonprofits), they are not only tax-exempt but tax-deductible," he told CNS Feb. 3. "People who give money to PACs, which have come under attack, will now be able to give money to a 501(c)(3) with less accountability, and the ability to compromise the mission of a house of God," if the bill became law.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment, Rabbi Moline said, would "create a campaign political atmosphere in houses of worship all over the country. It's important for people of faith to understand their tradition, but to be sheltered from having to express those values in a political way."

Rabbi Moline added that under the bill, "the government would essentially be funding campaign activities through the tax base, actually reducing—twice—the amount of money that would otherwise be collected in taxes. They would be exempt from taxes by the institution and also by the contributor."

Priests for Life founder and its national director, Father Frank Pavone, said in a Feb. 2 statement the Johnson Amendment "has muzzled clergy for too long. It's time for priests, pastors and other clergy to be able, as the president said, 'to speak freely without fear of retribution.'"

Tim Delaney, National Council of Nonprofits president, voiced "strong opposition" to the repeal bill. "Nonprofits are already free to exercise their First Amendment rights to advocate for their missions," he said in a Feb. 2 statement. "Allowing political operatives to push for endorsements would put nonprofits in a position where they become known as Democratic charities or Republican charities and put missions at risk."

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Rudolph Koser
5 years 3 months ago

If we think there are problems with Church attendance now, getting rid of the Johnson amendment will only make it worse. No candidate is in line with the Gospel which is what we need to endorse and ask the people to apply in their lives and electoral choices. Endorsements will only divide the Church in the US and make it a pawn of politicians. People do no want Sunday to be a political rally. They will stay home.

Tom Maher
5 years 3 months ago

We don't need the clergy's legal opinion on what the U.S. Constitution allows. It is an extremely bad guess for anyone to think that the First Amendment does not already clearly give all Religions Freedom of speech and Freedom of religion rights and guarantees.

As a Constitutional principle any prohibition of all religions political speech on any subject including the endorsement of candidates is very obnoxious government censorship of free speech of religions. The tax codes of the 20th century did not replace First Amendment freedom of religion and speech including free speech for religions. In the 21st century the free speech rulings of the Supreme Court gives all persons, groups, associations and incorporations free speech rights to express their political views under the First Amendment. Why should religions arbitrarily be denied the right of political free speech when every other person, group and organization has a free speech rights? Especially when all religions are also explicitly protected under the First Amendment freedom of religion clause. The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech overrides coercive tax rules limiting religion and speech in an archaic, obsolete and unenforceable mid-20th big-government tax code created by Mr. Big Government himself, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Taxing religions for any reason is an extreme fringe view that had some radical intellectuals who wanted the state to be the supreme authority over all thoughts and culture like the Soviet Union was and disregard the First Amendment Freedoms.

It is a fairly common violation of the Freedom of Religion to bind a religion to a statue that inherently lessens religious freedom. But how ridiculous would it be for the government to censor sermons given in a church over it content of a sermon? The First Amendment however says that Congress shall make no law abridging the Freedom of Religion, Speech, Press and Assembly.

Under the First Amendment federal, state or local governments have no censorship role on free speech.

The challenge here is to recognize the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land above all statues an latest social and political fads that disregard basic First Amendment free speech and freedom of religion rights.

Hopefully Catholics will recognize the importance and applicability of First Amendment rights above all other statues. Freedom of Speech and Religion right allow Catholics to practice their religion free of government interference and censorship.

Lisa Weber
5 years 3 months ago

Pastors have enough to do without being politicians on top of it. And the faithful are there to worship, not to be lectured on politics. Render unto God what is God's - and Sunday Mass is a time for God.

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