Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on religious liberty that partly aimed to weaken a 1950s law that barred church and faith-based groups from meddling into politics.
“In just a few moments, I will be signing an executive order to follow through on [my] pledge [to] prevent the Johnson Amendment from interfering with your First Amendment rights,” the president said at the time, standing in the Rose Garden. “We are giving our churches our voices back and we’re giving them back in the highest form. With this executive order, we make clear that the federal government will never ever penalize any person for their protected religious believes.”
However, this executive order failed to garner much attention as everyone was too focused on another order Trump signed during the same period, the one banning residents of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. That was just the beginning of controversial decisions from the Trump administration.
Despite being in the White House for over six months, the commander-in-chief and his team have been unable to (thankfully) uphold some of their key campaign promises – including repealing and replacing Obamacare, approve funding for the infamous border wall, and effectively implementing a Muslim ban.
However, while everyone is focued on health care and the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, it looks like the GOP has been working to defang the legislation that prohibits tax-exempt organizations “from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of [or in opposition to] any candidate for elective public office.”
The organizations that choose to violate the law risk losing their tax-exempt status.
The Johnson Amendment, signed in 1954 and named after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, began facing opposition in recent years as clergy claimed it hindered their freedom of expression. As The Washington Post reported, many pastors already ignore the law and the IRS rarely investigates them. However, repealing it would be equivalent to diminishing the separation of church and state, which is another promise Trump made to his conservative base.
The new U.S. House Appropriations Committee spending bill targets the law in a slightly different way. Instead of repealing it, the bill in its current form would bar IRS from using funds to take action against churches that contravene the amendment by engaging in political action.
To take any action, IRS agents would have to notify two congressional committees and wait for 90 days. Meanwhile, non faith-based groups would still have to obey the amendment.
“At the very least, this provision puts a further chilling effect on any attempts by IRS staff to enforce the Johnson Amendment with respect to pulpit speech — the part of the amendment that conservative churches have most opposed,” explained Charles Haynes, a religious freedom expert at the Newseum. “At its worst, the provision keeps IRS staff from doing its job to prevent charitable donations to flow to political campaigns.”
Thumbnail/Banner: Reuters, Jonathan Ernst