What Is the Johnson Amendment
and How Has It Become a Divisive Issue?

The Johnson Amendment is a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits tax-exempt groups—whether a secular organization or a house of worship—from supporting or opposing political candidates and political parties. It dates back to 1954 when Congress adopted language offered by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson to prevent all nonprofit organizations from endorsing candidates running for public office. In 1987, Congress amended the provision to clarify that tax-exempt organizations also may not oppose any candidate for public office.


What the Johnson Amendment Means for Houses of Worship:

Houses of worship and religious organizations are free to engage in elections in a nonpartisan manner, including voter education, get out the vote drives, and speaking to political and moral issues. If they want to maintain their tax exemption status, however, they may not endorse or oppose political candidates and political parties. Civic engagement activities are important for community building, whereas partisan political activity fosters deep divisions among members of the community.

Why the Johnson Amendment Is Good for Religious Liberty:

The Johnson Amendment protects both the integrity of houses of worship and the tax code. Engaging in partisan politics is harmful to houses of worship because it divides members of religious communities along political lines, pitting congregants against one another and against their clergy. Moreover, by remaining outside of the political process, religious groups are autonomous and not beholden to any particular candidate or party.

MOST Americans Support the Johnson Amendment:

According to a recent Pew Research survey and a poll conducted by Life Way Research, the vast majority of Americans are against political endorsements from churches. According to the Life Way Research poll 79 percent of Americans think it is wrong for a pastor to endorse a candidate during a church service, while 75 percent said houses of worship shouldn’t support candidates at any time.


Efforts to Repeal the Johnson Amendment:

Although the Johnson Amendment remained relatively uncontroversial for decades, in recent years it has gained vocal opposition. Opponents now even sponsor an event known as Pulpit Freedom Sunday, to encourage faith leaders to defy the Johnson Amendment by endorsing or opposing political candidates. And, there have been unsuccessful efforts in Congress to repeal the provision for years. Most recently, bills have been introduced by Rep. Jones (R-NC), Rep. Lamborn (R-CO), Rep. Scalise (R-LA), and Rep. Hice (R-GA) to repeal the Johnson Amendment, but none have gained any traction.

The Johnson Amendment made big news this year because Presidential nominee Donald Trump has pledged to repeal the provision. By falsely framing the Johnson Amendment as a law that harms religious liberty and freedom of speech, he has thrown the issue into the spotlight.

Trump also amended the Republican Party’s official platform  to explicitly include a call to repeal the Johnson Amendment: “Republicans believe the federal government, specifically the IRS, is constitutionally prohibited from policing or censoring the speech of America’s churches, pastors, and religious leaders. We support repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which restricts First Amendment freedoms of all nonprofit organizations by prohibiting political speech.”
 

What a Repeal Would Mean:

A repeal of the Johnson Amendment or even a weakening of its enforcement mechanism would blur the line between church and state. The original intent behind the tax code’s tax-exempt status for nonprofit organizations was to ease the financial burden on organizations that operate for religious, educational, and charitable purposes. It was not meant to enable religious organizations to more easily engage in political campaigns. Just as campaign organizations and Political Action Committees are not tax-exempt entities, houses of worship that aid in a politician’s campaign may not operate as tax-exempt either.


Debunking Myths
about the Johnson Amendment:

The Johnson Amendment Does Not Violate the First Amendment:

Contrary to opponents’ talking points, the Johnson Amendment does not violate religious groups’ freedom of speech. Courts have found that the government may impose limits on nonprofits’ political speech because the government may not subsidize political endorsements through tax exemption. Nor does the Johnson Amendment violate the Free Exercise Clause or Establishment Clause because it is a neutral law that does not single out religious organizations, and because it affects only houses of worship’s outward political endorsements, and not their internal workings.

The IRS Does Not Unfairly Target Religious Groups:

Contrary to opponents’ talking points, the Johnson Amendment does not violate religious groups’ freedom of speech. Courts have found that the government may impose limits on nonprofits’ political speech because the government may not subsidize political endorsements through tax exemption. Nor does the Johnson Amendment violate the Free Exercise Clause or Establishment Clause because it is a neutral law that does not single out religious organizations, and because it affects only houses of worship’s outward political endorsements, and not their internal workings.

People of Faith Are Not Prohibited from Endorsing and Opposing Candidates:

Religious leaders are free to speak from the pulpit about political and moral issues, as long as they do not endorse or oppose a candidate for office. And, if religious leaders wish to issue endorsements from the pulpit, they can do so – they simply will lose their organization’s tax-exempt status.

Moreover, religious leaders may endorse or oppose a party or candidate when acting in their individual capacity. For example, Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Donald Trump for president. Because he did so in his personal capacity, rather than as president of Liberty University, the university has not violated the Johnson Amendment. 


Take Action

As of now, Congressional efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment have not been successful. But given the renewed interest from opponents, it is important to speak out against religious engagement in partisan politics.

Read Our Talking Points

Take PArt In Our Week of Action

Write A Letter To The Editor

Sign the Petition Calling on the IRS to Enforce the Johnson Amendment