Senator and future president Lyndon B. Johnson put forward the Johnson Amendment in 1954. This amendment, attached to a tax code law, prevented 501c non-profit organizations, such as churches and universities, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. If these types of non-profit organizations promote political candidates, their tax-exempt status will be lost. The rationale behind the decision being that tax-exempt groups should not be able to make political donations without taxation. Donors will also lose their potential tax write-offs. Churches and other non-profit organizations are allowed to be areas where people can vote, but they cannot directly support any sort of political power.
The Johnson Amendment was recently attacked by President Donald Trump, who argued that the amendment does not allow Americans the “right to worship according to our own belief.”
Trump also stated that his greatest achievement for religions is “to allow you, when you talk about religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it.”
Some people argue that the Johnson Amendment was not put into place because of the need for separation of church and state but was rather an electioneering strategy by Johnson in the 1954 senate race in Texas. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) argues that without the Johnson Amendment in place, Texas’ Republican-leaning evangelicals would have been able to defeat him and the left-leaning Democratic Party.
Because of this, people argue that the Johnson Amendment infringes on their free speech. A court case known as Branch Ministries v. Rossotti occurred when Branch Ministries sued the IRS for infringement on their freedom of speech after their tax-exempt status was taken away due to an ad that asked Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton over moral issues. The court argued that the “impact of the revocation is likely to be more symbolic than substantial” due to how churches are treated under the Internal Revenue Code.
The Johnson Amendment should stay in place because it helps enforce the very important principle of the separation of church and state. Proponents of the amendment argue that without the Johnson Amendment, political parties, PACs and candidates could easily funnel money through churches without any political oversight.
Unlike other 501c organizations, churches are exempt from reporting requirements. Instead of being monitored by the federal government, this money could be hidden away in churches and then used freely for whatever plan necessary. Churches could potentially be turned into political machines rather than the place of spiritual enlightenment that they seek to be.
Politifact states that the point of the Johnson Amendment is “if you want to be absolved from paying taxes, you couldn’t be involved in partisan politics.” While problems of money are intensely connected to the Johnson Amendment, there is another problem in that churches should not be focused on politics and rather should be focused on the teachings of their faith. Politics would merely cause unnecessary fighting and disruption to the patrons of these churches. There is no need for unnecessary arguments about what political candidates the church will be supporting. Instead of these arguments, time could be better spent on discussions of their faith.
According to Reverend Barry W. Lynn, an executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the idea of getting rid of the Johnson Amendment would be “short-sighted, reckless and corrosive to religious life. The Republican platform seeks to turn America’s houses of worship into miniature political action committees. I can’t imagine a more disruptive idea for our nation’s religious community or a real impediment to campaign finance reform.”