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Another Effort To Get Rid Of The 'Johnson Amendment' Fails

Charlie Neibergall

A provision in the U.S tax code that bars churches and charities from engaging in political campaigns remains intact, more than a year after President Trump pledged to "get rid of and totally destroy" it.

Under the Johnson Amendment, named for its 1954 legislative sponsor, then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, religious and nonprofit organizations can lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in activity "on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office."

Some religious leaders and politicians say the amendment limits the right to free speech and have argued for its repeal. Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2017, President Trump gave the repeal effort his full support. In May he signed an executive order urging the Treasury Department to show leniency in enforcing the amendment, and in recent months he urged the U.S. Congress to do away with it altogether.

The repeal effort, however, ran into stiff opposition from nonprofit organizations and many church groups who said that without the amendment they would face pressure from politicians seeking endorsements. Neither the tax bill passed in December nor the spending bill passed Thursday by the House included a repeal provision.

Among those who pushed hard to get rid of the Johnson Amendment were Vice President Pence and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., along with other conservative members of Congress.

Scalise's press secretary, Lauren Fine, said the amendment's repeal "remains a priority" for the Louisiana congressman but that the provision fell victim this week to the bipartisan negotiation over the spending bill. "It's unfortunate that this was not one of the things that made it in," Fine said.

The drive to repeal the amendment was led by conservative activists such as Ralph Reed and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and had strong backing from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal aid organization. Since 2008, the ADF has promoted "Pulpit Freedom Sundays" as occasions when pastors should challenge the prohibition against political activity by preaching openly about the moral qualifications of candidates seeking office.

The campaign has never gained much momentum, however, perhaps because relatively few pastors appear to feel constrained by the amendment, and because surveys show Americans don't want to hear more politics from the pulpit.

Among those celebrating the preservation of the amendment was the National Council of Nonprofits, a network of about 25,000 charitable organizations around the country, and more than 100 religious groups.

"Those who depend on houses of worship and community nonprofits can breathe a sigh of relief," said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. "Concerted efforts to weaken the long-standing law that keeps [them] free from partisan campaigning were rebuked yet again."

Another repeal effort could come during consideration of the FY 2019 appropriations bill in a few months.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.