Earlier this month, as soon as the Republican party took full control of both houses of Congress, Rep. Walter Jones [R-NC-3] introduced a bill that would remove the electioneering prohibition for churches and other 501(c)3 tax-exempt groups. This is a good and bad bill so I’m torn over it. While it would open a Pandora’s box of electioneering for churches, the current language of the bill would remove the restriction for all tax-exempt groups.
The American Humanist Association is sounding the alarm:
Earlier this month, Rep. Walter Jones introduced a bill, H.R. 153, which would “restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.” The Johnson Amendment being referred to is a piece of legislation that prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
If pastors are given the right to endorse candidates from the pulpit, their parishioners may be coerced into supporting specific candidates because of a perceived religious obligation. This is fundamentally un-American, and weakens the state of our democracy by giving religious leaders untold influence.
The current language of the bill however doesn’t just apply to churches:
(a) IN GENERAL.—Paragraph (3) of section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (relating to list of exempt organizations) is amended by striking “, and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office”.
That could mean that ALL 501(c)3 tax-exempt groups could start legally electioneering – including the American Humanist Association.
Now you see why I am torn over this bill.
On one hand churches shouldn’t be allowed to electioneer and get a tax-exemption but on the other hand if passed, as introduced, H. R. 153 would allow all groups like the AHA to electioneer.
The only thread still keeping me on the opposition side of this bill is that I think it’s a slippery slope if groups getting a tax-exemption are allowed to electioneer. There is just too much room for government interference and vice versa using the tax-exemption as leverage.
Churches are able to support or oppose political issues. If this bill becomes law we would have more of this only more obvious:
The Johnson amendment may not have barred Ryan from making his address: He was in a CBS studio, not in a pulpit. And politicians have employed creative ways to get around the prohibitions. For example, pastors are permitted to address issues, including those being put to a referendum, from the pulpit. In 2004, Republicans in Ohio backed a referendum on gay marriage. This allowed evangelical pastors to speak week in and week out against gay marriage and about the need to turn out the vote. Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s chief strategist, knew that if those conservative evangelicals turned out to vote against gay marriage, they would be unlikely to vote for Sen. John Kerry at the same time.
There already is too much influence on the government from churches and pastors and H. R. 153 would only make things worse for secular Americans.