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Monday, Dec. 4, 2017

RELIGION AND POLITICS

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Republicans propose scrapping Johnson Amendment

What is the Johnson Amendment? The Johnson Amendment is a provision in the U.S. tax code since 1954 that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. They are the most common type of non-profit organizations in the United States, ranging from churches to charitable foundations to universities. The amendment is named for then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who introduced it as a preliminary draft of the law in July 1954.

Since then, the Johnson Amendment has been an issue of controversy. There have been accusations that churches have crossed the line by bringing politics into their realm and letting politicians whom they support speak to the congregation from the pulpit. Most of the criticism for this type of politicking has been leveled at black churches as well as Evangelical churches. Still, it goes on, and politicians feel it is important to get that exposure.

In the 2000s, many Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have sought to repeal the provision, arguing that it restricts free speech rights of churches and other religious groups. These efforts have been criticized because churches have fewer reporting requirements than other nonprofit organizations and because it would effectively make political contributions tax-deductible. On May 4, 2017, President Trump signed the "Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty" for the purpose of easing the Johnson Amendment’s restrictions.

The president’s actions were not surprising. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump called for the repeal of the amendment. On Feb. 2, 2017, he vowed at the National Prayer Breakfast to "totally destroy" the Johnson Amendment. Trump’s executive order does not, nor can it, repeal the Johnson Amendment, nor does it allow preachers to endorse from the pulpit, but it does direct the Department of the Treasury that "churches should not be found guilty of implied endorsements where secular organizations would not be."

But Republicans have not forgotten their disdain for the Johnson Amendment. A proposal to reverse the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits political activity by tax-exempt organizations, has made it into the House tax reform bill. Efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment have been criticized for a number of reasons. One concern is that political campaign contributions funneled through churches would be tax-deductible for donors and that such contributions would not be disclosed since churches are exempt from reporting requirements required of other 501(c)(3) organizations. There has also been concern from pastors and Christians about the potential that a total repeal would cause churches to transform into partisan super PACs.

Further, some feel that changing current law to encourage churches and charitable non-profits to endorse and oppose political candidates will deepen divides in their congregations, organizations and communities. That’s why 4,200 faith leaders, 5,500 non-profit organizations, and 103 religious and denomination organizations have all written to Congress strongly opposing the weakening or repeal of current law. The National Council of Nonprofits also opposes the repeal of the Johnson Amendment as does Independent Sector, a coalition of non-profits, foundations and corporations If all of these people and organizations are opposed the repealing the Johnson Amendment, who is in favor of repeal? Have all of these pleas fallen on deaf ears? Apparently so. The only ones pushing for repeal is President Trump and Congressional Republicans. The general public, Democrats and Republicans, have a different view, however.

Recently, the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland (PPC), conducted a survey of 2,482 registered voters on this issue. An overwhelming majority of 79 percent of voters oppose the proposal to allow churches and other non-profit organizations to endorse political candidates and provide them money and other support. And listen to this, President Trump and Congressional Republicans: 71 percent of Republicans oppose repeal of the Johnson Amendment, along with 88 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of Independents.

Steven Kull, director of PPC, said, "Americans are frustrated with the degree of partisan polarization in this country. The idea of churches and universities becoming channels for partisan political activity makes this proposal a non-starter with Republican and Democratic voters alike." The survey found that 82 percent feel that churches and universities should be special places for worship or study and that they could become affiliated with specific parties, promoting rancor and polarization. Seventy-eight percent fear that repeal would open up the floodgates for political money to flow through churches. Seventy-three percent said that giving tax breaks for political donations means that the U.S. Treasury, and, thus, American taxpayers, will be effectively paying part of the cost of the donation.

Though numerous Evangelical leaders have come out in favor of allowing churches to engage in political activity, in the survey 56 percent of respondents who identify as Evangelical said they oppose the proposal while 43 percent were in favor. However, among Republican Evangelicals, a slight majority of 52 percent favors the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.

Lou Gehrig Burnett, an award-winning journalist, has been involved with politics for 44 years and was a congressional aide in Washington, D.C., for 27 years. He also served as executive assistant to former Shreveport Mayor “Bo” Williams. Burnett is the publisher of the weekly “FaxNet Update” and can be reached at 861-0552 or louburnett@comcast.net.

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