President Donald Trump has promised to protect churches that talk politics through repealing the Johnson Amendment.
At the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Trump invoked Thomas Jefferson in his pledge to repeal the amendment.
“Jefferson asked, ‘Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?'” Trump said. “Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives that have faith to speak freely and without fear.”
The Johnson Amendment states that if pastors explicitly endorse or oppose a political candidate, churches will lose their 501(c)(3) tax exemption. The amendment was presented in 1954 by Lyndon Johnson, then a senator, as a means to muzzle nonprofit organizations that were supporting a primary opponent of his. Churches and religious organizations were thrown into that designation.
Leftists are already howling at the notion of the repeal of Johnson Amendment. Randall Balmer argues in the Los Angeles Times that the amendment is necessary to uphold separation of church and state, since the taxpayer is essentially subsidizing the church. Think Progress blogger Jack Jenkins argued on Twitter that repealing the Johnson Amendment “defeats the purpose of a 501c3.”
Balmer’s argument is a self-defeating one. Erik Stanley, the senior counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, notes that it’s absurd to compare a tax exemption to a subsidy because “we’d have to say that the government is subsidizing everything it exempts, including the religious ceremonies of churches.” He then pointed out that the Supreme Court has ruled that the government can’t use a tax exemption as leverage to infringe upon individual rights.
“If that were allowed, the government could mandate that churches which refuse to quarter troops will lose their tax exemption,” writes Stanley. “The argument is preposterous.”
Isn’t the government using tax-exempt status to restrict freedom of speech on churches a violation of the separation of church and state that Balmer claims to be so concerned about?
Jenkins’s argument is more compelling because it is true that nonprofits generally are not allowed to endorse specific candidates, but the problem is that the Johnson Amendment has been used as a weapon by the Internal Revenue Service to suppress political speech from the pulpit altogether.
Here is one such example, as pointed out by The Daily Signal:
In a matter that deals more directly with what pastors oppose, the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, faced a near two-year investigation from the IRS after a 2004 sermon opposing the war in Iraq. The IRS dropped its investigation, but the church reportedly spent $200,000 in legal bills.
Therein lies the problem with the Johnson Amendment: it’s a threat that hangs over the heads of pastors, whether they face pressure from outside groups, members or general fear that they’ll lose their tax-exempt status by speaking out on various issues. Consequently, pastors are less willing to share their opinions on important issues like abortion and religious liberty.
A legitimate argument can be made against religious organizations spending money on particular political candidates, but pastors shouldn’t be censored on political matters from the pulpit because of the Johnson Amendment. If Trump follows through on his promise to repeal the amendment, it would be another instance of Good Trump.
Follow Aaron Bandler on Twitter @bandlersbanter.