Nonprofits, including places of worship, were on the cusp last week of being able to endorse political candidates while maintaining their 501(c)3 nonprofit status. The Johnson Amendment, created in 1954 to prevent tax-exempt nonprofits from becoming involved in partisan politics, was facing repeal due to language in the House’s new GOP tax bill. The Senate, however, removed that language from its version because the repeal had nothing to do with taxes, critics argued.
Many religious leaders in favor of repealing the amendment argued it would allow for freedom of speech without consequence, while opponents of a repeal feared donations to churches would be unregulated and written off as tax deductions.
Colorado Springs Metropolitan Statistical Area is home to more than 80 religious bodies, which is made up of more than 450 congregations and around 200,000 regular attendees, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives. Since the reconciliation committee agreed not to include the repeal, the Johnson Amendment still governs behavior for those local churches and religious organizations.
But even for churches that violate the Johnson Amendment — named after President Lyndon B. Johnson — the law is not frequently enforced, according to Deb Walker, executive director of Citizens Project, a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit that advocates for equality, diversity and separation of church and state.
“There is a Sunday that some faith communities around the country participate in, it’s called Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” said Walker. “I know there are churches in this community that participate in that day. That very intentionally violates the Johnson Amendment. Whether it’s on that Sunday or all the time … the reality is, many organizations and faith communities are pushing up against the boundary regularly, with [few repercussions].”
While some pastors might feel that the Johnson Amendment curbs their speech and ability to lead their congregations as they wish, the Senate’s decision to keep the status quo was seen as a step forward by Citizens Project, according to Walker.
“We’re strong supporters of the Johnson Amendment,” she said. “We think it’s an important provision in our tax code to make sure charitable organizations remain politically neutral.
“We think it’s also important to distinguish that churches and other charitable organizations can absolutely talk about issues that might [have] political implications. But this Johnson Amendment specifically prohibits the endorsement of candidates and parties.”
Ultimately, churches and other nonprofits are incentivized for the community service they provide by receiving tax-free status, she added.
“Keeping those organizations charitable for the benefit of all of society is important. That’s why they get tax benefits,” Walker said. “We taxpayers are functionally subsidizing charitable organizations so they can do good for our communities. We are not subsidizing them so they can be involved in political speech.
“If a church feels so passionately about an issue or the right to endorse, they could absolutely give up their charitable status.”
If churches started receiving donations while endorsing candidates, it would be difficult to regulate, Walker said.
“That’s one of the concerns, that 501(c)3 organizations would begin to engage in political speech and donors could divert money with tax benefits to organizations who, in turn, are acting like political action committees,” she said. “We start entering dangerous territory when candidates are being endorsed from the pulpit and when church resources are being used to promote a certain candidate or party.”
If the Johnson Amendment were repealed, Kent Ingram, senior minister for First United Methodist Church in Colorado Springs, said he would remain nonpartisan.
“What if a politician calls me up and says, ‘I’ll give a million dollars to your church if you support this political view or you support my candidacy.’ That can be a dangerous thing,” Ingram said. “There’s a possibility we could be tempted; we could sell out. I would like to believe I would not do that. If that was the case — what is there to stop that?”
Jay Sherwood, who has been Temple Shalom’s rabbi for five months, said the Senate made the right decision.
“I think the … Senate was correct in ruling that the [Johnson Amendment repeal] falls outside the current reconciliation agreement, as in everything in the bill has to be financial and this was not the case. It did not belong in the tax bill at all,” Sherwood said. “The Johnson Amendment is a good thing. Synagogues, churches, mosques, should not be endorsing candidates. … [They] would become religious super political action committees. I don’t think that’s a good thing for our country.”
Ingram said he has never felt the need to endorse candidates or political parties during sermons.
“I can be faithful to what I believe scripture says, what my tradition teaches and what my church understands to be truthful without being particularly partisan, without trying to name a particular politician or issue and saying ‘This is how you have to vote to be Christian,’” Ingram said. “We accept and recognize that people are going to disagree and have differences over political issues. So I am in favor of keeping the Johnson Amendment. I’m in favor of not letting groups who don’t have to pay taxes align themselves with particular partisan political views and issues.”
Some religious content can be viewed through a political lens and religious texts can cross over to political issues, according to Sherwood.
“When I give a political sermon, I do it from the perspective of Jewish values,” he said. “I don’t give a political speech, I give a Jewish values speech that might inform how we [view] a particular issue.
“I want people to think. That’s my main goal,” Sherwood said. “To get them to consider the issue more deeply, not to just jump in and say, ‘I’m a Republican, I believe this or I’m a Democrat, I believe this.’ … I don’t think that’s really being an informed person.”
Since Ingram became senior minister, First United Methodist Church has never been involved in partisan politics, said Ingram, who has also discussed political issues during sermons without taking an official stance.
Churches that choose to participate and engage in politics may have valid concerns, but many seek the power that comes with politics, Ingram said.
If large donations were being made to mostly large, evangelical churches, other religions such as Buddhism, Islam and Judaism would fall to the side, Sherwood said.
“It really puts minority religions at a loss,” Sherwood said. “There are far more dollars that flow through certain denominations that don’t flow through [other] denominations and religions. Repealing the Johnson Amendment would open up the floodgate on those dollars … [and] it would open up the idea that religious organizations could use money to endorse candidates.
“As a clergy, we’re not supposed to be in the business of endorsing candidates for political office in the country in which we live,” he said. “We’re supposed to be in the business of helping people find their spiritual pathway through life. That’s what religion is supposed to be about.”