Feb. 16, 2017

Proposals to Alter Johnson Amendment Could Turn Churches Into Super PACs

Conservative Christian Groups Have Spent $24 Million Influencing Elections Over Past Decade

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Five groups aiming to knock down the wall between religious institutions and politics have spent $24 million to influence elections since 2006, a new Public Citizen analysis shows (PDF).

These groups are part of a concerted movement on the right seeking to chip away at the Johnson Amendment, named after President Lyndon B. Johnson. This 1954 law prohibits groups registered under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, which include charities and religious organizations, from engaging in activities to influence elections. These organizations may receive tax-deductible contributions and are not required to disclose their donors. This provision ensures that (c)(3)s remain committed to their charitable and spiritual missions and are not vulnerable to outside partisan manipulation.

The law gained national prominence in early February when President Donald Trump promised to “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely.”

Other proposals appear to be less drastic than Trump’s and suggest a desire to allow pastors merely to talk to their parishioners on political issues. But they contain loopholes that would allow churches to engage in extensive political activities, further eroding the campaign finance system, according to Public Citizen’s analysis, “The Devil in the Details.”

“This law is vital to ensuring that taxpayers can trust that their charitable contributions aren’t being used to play in partisan politics,” said Emily Peterson-Cassin, coordinator of Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project, a group of tax lawyers and nonprofit leaders seeking a sensible and clear definition of political activity for all nonprofits. “There are plenty of ways to address churches’ concerns without giving charities the right to act like super PACs.”

The motivations of those pushing for change and subtle legislative language suggest that the proposals are rooted in a desire to do more than permit pastors to make an occasional political comment from the pulpit. Among the evidence:

1. At least five groups that appear to favor paring back the Johnson Amendment have spent large sums to influence elections. The National Right to Life Committee, Susan B. Anthony List, Focus on the Family, National Organization for Marriage and Family Research Council have spent $24 million to influence federal, state and local elections since 2006, according to Public Citizen’s analysis.

2. A lawyer representing many of the groups seeking changes to the law is James Bopp Jr. Bopp has dedicated his career to dismantling the campaign finance system, including spearheading the case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which permitted unfettered spending on elections by corporations.

3. One of the proposals to alter the Johnson Amendment includes a major loophole. The bill, which is favored by many groups, would permit charities to engage in political activities that add no more than de minimis incremental costs. The key word in this proposal is “incremental.” This language would permit a church with extensive television programming to convert its content to politics as long as it did not add to its budget.

“The public should be wary of seemingly innocuous proposals to alter the Johnson Amendment,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “What these proposals are really about is permitting taxpayer-subsidized electioneering activity by churches. This is like a mortgage income tax deduction for political speech.”

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