May 4, 2017
NOTE: Later on May 4, Public Citizen issued an updated release about the executive order. You can find it here.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – As President Donald Trump prepares to sign an executive order attempting to fulfill his promise to “destroy” the law protecting churches and other 501(c)(3)s from partisan manipulation, Public Citizen is warning that Trump’s action threatens another “Citizens United moment” with elections subjected to a whole new tsunami of secret and unaccountable money.
“This executive order may go down in history as the Citizens United of church/state separation in the context of political spending,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “If carried out, the executive order would enable evangelical, social conservative and other churches to operate as dark money funnels – with even less disclosure and reporting required for social welfare organizations and trade associations.”
“In addition to going against the wishes of those very groups it stands to affect, gutting enforcement of the Johnson Amendment could open the door to even more secret money influencing elections – this time with an added tax deduction. The idea of taxpayers footing the bill to enable more dark money in our already broken political system is appalling,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen.
“A tiny handful of groups are asking for this measure against a vast wave of groups and voters who prefer to keep their religious and charitable lives free of partisan politics,” said Emily Peterson-Cassin, coordinator of Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project, which is advocating rules designed to clarify IRS regulations governing nonprofit organizations’ political activities. “Nobody wants a world where we have to choose between the Republican and Democratic soup kitchens.”
While Trump cannot overturn the Johnson Amendment – which prevents 501(c)(3)s, including churches, from engaging in electoral activity – through executive order, he is expected to direct the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service not to enforce this popular law that’s been on the books for more than 60 years.
Trump’s executive order comes as two U.S. House of Representatives subcommittees hold a hearing discussing the repeal of a law that churches, charities and the public have overwhelmingly said they don’t want to change.
The U.S. House Oversight Committee Subcommittees on Government Operations and Health Care, Benefits, and Administrative Rules are holding a hearing this morning titled, “Examining a Church’s Right to Free Speech,” at which witnesses are expected to criticize the Johnson Amendment, the tax law provision that prohibits 501(c)(3) charities such as churches, schools, hospitals and foundations from supporting or opposing candidates for office.
The moves to undo the Johnson Amendment are taking place despite the fact that churches overwhelmingly support the law and not a single denominational group has come out in favor of repeal. In fact, the law is very popular among voters, nonprofits and faith organizations because it protects their independence from government and prevents partisan manipulation of their organizations.