With so much upheaval happening in the world of U.S. politics, it’s easy for even major stories to slip through the cracks. While the public at large has focused primarily on President Trump’s many dramatic actions–as well as his many outrageous tweets–few are aware that if he and his cohorts have their way, this country’s long-cherished tradition of separation of church and state will be more at risk than ever. More than ever, conservatives are working feverishly to repeal the Johnson Amendment. This matters because the amendment, which went into law in 1954, specifically forbids tax-exempt non-profit organizations, including churches, from campaigning for or against political candidates, and it is at serious risk of being repealed.
Earlier this fall, an attempt to repeal the Johnson Amendment was made by slipping the language into the House Financial Services appropriations bill. That didn’t work, but that didn’t put these efforts to an end. The issue is still there, and it’s more urgent than ever. The huge tax reform bill that is on the table now includes language that strips away the most important aspects of the Johnson Amendment. Specifically, it exempts religious organizations like churches from the rule while still keeping it in place for other types of 501(c)(3) organizations.
In early November, End Citizens United, a grassroots, non-profit organization that was established in the wake of the disastrous Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision of 2010. Citizens United, as the decision is typically called, handed corporations the same rights as individuals. It also chose to interpret the First Amendment protection of free speech as applying to political contributions too, as the court ruled that these are a type of speech. In one fell swoop, then, SCOTUS upended all the rules that had prevented dark money from being easily funneled to Super PACs and other organizations. When it was founded in 2015, End Citizens United focused on overturning the decision. Now, it’s added protecting the Johnson Amendment to its list of top priorities.
Few people were aware of the Johnson Amendment until it started getting in the news recently. However, its history stretches all the way back to 1954, when Lyndon B. Johnson, then a U.S. Senator for the state of Texas, introduced the amendment in Congress. It was put into effect later that year. Interestingly enough, the move didn’t generate a lot of buzz at the time. In fact, it was signed into law by a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower.
Even fewer people understand why the Johnson Amendment was necessary. For starters, consider this: In 2015, Americans donated more than $119 billion to religious organizations. In contrast, the total cost for the 2016 election–which was the most expensive one in history–was around $6.5 billion. The fear is that once people donate money to their churches, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment would mean that they would never know how that money was ultimately used. As a result, a huge percentage of that $119 billion could be diverted toward conservative political groups–and that could spell disaster for democracy in the U.S.
Although you don’t often hear about the IRS revoking the tax-exempt status of a 501(c)(3) for violating the Johnson Amendment, it has happened. Perhaps the most famous example occurred in 1992, when a church took out a full-page ad in USA Today urging Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton. As a result of this, the church in question lost its tax-exempt status. Although the rule has been enforced in the past, however, this enforcement has been waning more and more through the years.
There already exists a long tradition of religious organizations flouting the terms of the Johnson Amendment. In fact, groups exist expressly for this purpose. One movement known as Pulpit Freedom Sounding, which is spearheaded by the conservative Alliance Defending America, encourages churches to flout the Johnson Amendment. Although the IRS has audited numerous members of this movement, no penalties have been levied against any of them. This suggests that the Johnson Amendment was weakened some time ago. Now, it is clear that Republicans feel that they can put the final nail in its coffin–but that won’t happen if End Citizens United has anything to say about it.
While it may seem like the Johnson Amendment repeal has suddenly become a huge issue, the truth is that Trump promised during his campaign to repeal it. This means that many of his hardcore supporters understand the significance of this law. Trump went on to issue an executive order in May that discourages the IRS from enforcing the terms of the amendment. Executive orders don’t accomplish anything in and of themselves, but this was clearly a way for Trump to signal to his supporters that he was trying to keep one of his campaign promises.
End Citizens United and other non-profits have joined the fight to save the Johnson Amendment because it plays a key role in maintaining the separation of church and state in this country. Should the rider that has been added to the tax bill make it through, and if the Johnson Amendment is repealed, the matter will almost certainly end up in front of the Supreme Court again. As in 2010, there are no guarantees about what the court will do. Given that yet another conservative was appointed to the court recently, odds are that any decision regarding the Johnson Amendment would be equally disappointing and disastrous.
Even though the separation of church and state was a founding principle of the U.S., public sentiment regarding it isn’t very straightforward. In a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of Americans stated that they were uncomfortable with the idea of religion in politics. Still, that means that a significant number are okay with it. At the end of the day, however, it is up to groups like End Citizens United to take a stand against these developments and to ensure that dark money doesn’t find yet another convenient way to get into campaign coffers.