Congress proposes Johnson Amendment overhaul

Members of Congress have introduced legislation to enable churches and other non-profit organizations to endorse candidates or otherwise participate in political campaigns without fear of penalties from the Internal Revenue Service.

The Free Speech Fairness Act—introduced Feb. 1, the day before President Trump reiterated his intent to eliminate the so-called Johnson Amendment—would free pastors, churches and other tax-exempt entities to intervene on behalf of or against candidates in an election campaign. The measure would still prohibit financial donations from such organizations to candidates or campaigns, a bill sponsor said.

The Johnson Amendment, named after then-Senator and future President Lyndon Johnson of Texas, altered the federal tax code in 1954 to bar 501(c)(3) organizations "from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."

In a speech at the recent National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, Trump pledged to "get rid of, and totally destroy, the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution." He made a similar promise during the election campaign, including in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in July.

The amendment, and the way it has been wielded by liberal organizations especially, has caused confusion for many churches and pastors regarding what freedoms they have to address elections or even issues and the public policies affecting them.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said in introducing his bill: "The federal government and the IRS should never have the ability to inhibit free speech.

"The First Amendment right of free speech and right to practice any faith, or no faith, are foundational American values that must extend to everyone, whether they are a pastor, social worker or any charity employee or volunteer," said Lankford, a Southern Baptist, in a written release.

Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., a former Southern Baptist pastor, said as a co-sponsor of the proposal: "[T]he IRS has used the Johnson Amendment to silence and threaten religious institutions and charitable entities.

"As a minister who has experienced intimidation from the IRS firsthand, I know just how important it is to ensure that our churches and nonprofit organizations are allowed the same fundamental rights as every citizen of this great Nation," Hice said in a written statement.

Erik Stanley, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said in support of the legislation, "Americans don't need a federal tax agency to be the speech police of churches or any other non-profit groups, who have a constitutionally protected freedom to decide for themselves what they want to say or not say. By removing the threat of an IRS investigation and potential penalties based simply, for example, on what a pastor says from the pulpit, this bill brings the law into conformity with the First Amendment."

Some supporters of the legislation believe pastors and churches—and not the federal government—should be the ones to decide what they say from the pulpit regarding elections while also believing pastors and churches should not make endorsements. Announcing support for a political candidate could harm the Gospel outreach and ministry of the church, they say.

A LifeWay Research survey conducted in September 2015 showed 79 percent of Americans think it is inappropriate for pastors to endorse a candidate in a church meeting. In addition, 75 percent say churches should not make endorsements.

The poll showed 25 percent of evangelical Christians, 20 percent of Protestants and 13 percent of Roman Catholics say endorsements are proper.

Lankford has two co-sponsors in the Senate for his bill, which is S. 264. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., is the sponsor of the House companion bill, H.R. 781. Hice is the lone co-sponsor.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.

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