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Legislation


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Legislation


Members of Congress are attacking the Johnson Amendment in multiple ways. Two stand-alone bills would repeal or weaken the current law. Language has also been added to a House appropriations bill that would weaken the law. In addition, a provision in the tax reform bill would essentially exempt houses of worship from the Johnson Amendment. 

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The Tax Bill


The Tax Bill


H.R. 1

"The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act"

What the Bill Does:

The House bill would allow endorsement activity to permeate throughout tax-exempt organizations, transforming them from charitable organizations to tax-exempt partisan campaign organizations.

Section 5201 of the bill would allow all tax-exempt organizations—including houses of worship, foundations, and charitable nonprofits—to make statements endorsing or opposing candidates for public office so long as those statements are made in the “ordinary course” of carrying out their tax-exempt purpose and do not incur more than “de minimis incremental expenses.” Although this might sound like a narrow exemption to current law, it is actually so broad, it makes the Johnson Amendment nearly meaningless.

For example, while preaching to his congregation, a pastor could endorse one or more candidates and then the church could post a video of that sermon on its website, email it to parishioners, and distribute it publicly on social media. In addition, the president of major university could insert an endorsement into its weekly newsletter that is emailed to current students and its massive alumni network.

Changing the law would create a substantial loophole in campaign finance law that could be exploited by those seeking to influence elections. It would allow people to escape transparency rules and get tax-deductions for donations that will be used to influence elections.

Changing the law could turn tax-exempt organizations into tools of candidates and political campaigns. It would also lead to divisions within houses of worship and charitable organizations, as members, donors, and those they serve become split along party lines. 

The Status of the Bill:

House Leadership introduced their proposal on November 2, 2017, and the House Ways and Means Committee took up the bill days later, on November 6. The original bill would have allowed houses of worship (but not other tax-exempt organizations) to endorse candidates. During the committee markup, Rep. John Lewis offered an amendment to strip Section 5201 from the bill and return the Johnson Amendment to its full effect. The vote failed with a vote of 16-23. Then, as the markup was wrapping up, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) offered a 30-page amendment. It included language that expanded Section 5201 to all tax-exempt organizations. The amendment was adopted on a party line vote. The House passed its bill on November 16, 2017. 

The Senate bill, as introduced, does not include language to repeal or weaken the Johnson Amendment. The Senate Finance Committee adopted their bill and it now moves to the Senate floor.

Watch the House COmmittee Debate:

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The Appropriations Bills


The Appropriations Bills


FY2018 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill

What The Bill Does:

Section 116 of the Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) Appropriations bill, which provides funding for the District of Columbia and various federal agencies, including the IRS, would make it incredibly difficult for the IRS to investigate churches that have violated the Johnson Amendment. It would require consent from the IRS Commissioner for each investigation, notification to two committees in Congress and a 90-day waiting period before such investigations could commence. These hurdles would slow down, if not entirely halt, any investigations and further politicize them. In addition, because this special treatment applies to houses of worship and not to secular organizations, the provision likely violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

the Status of the Bill:

On July 13, 2017, the House Appropriations Committee took up the bill. 108 national organizations signed onto a letter telling members of the committee to oppose the inclusion of this language in the appropriations bill. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and co-sponsor Barbara Lee (D-CA) offered an amendment to strip the provision. Despite having bipartisan support, the measure failed with a vote of 24-28. The bill, including Section 116, was later approved by and passed the House. We now wait to see what the Senate will do. 


 

The Committee Vote: 

Yes: Aguilar, Bishop, Cartwright, Clark, Cuellar, DeLauro, Dent, Kaptur, Kilmer, Lee, Lowey, McCollum, Meng, Pingree, Pocan, Price, Quigley, Royal-Allard, Ruppersbrger, Ryan, Serrano, Taylor, Viscolsky, Wasserman Schultz

No: Aderholt, Amodei, Calvert, Carter, Cole, Culberson, Diaz-Balart, Fleischmann, Fortenberry, Frelinghuysen, Granger, Graves, Harris, Herrara Beutler, Jenkins, Joyce, Moolenaar, Newhouse, Palazzo, Roby, Rogers, Rooney, Simpson, Stewart, Valadao, Womack, Yoder, Young

 

Watch the House Committee Debate:

What Members of the Committee said:

"Regardless of our political stripes and colors, no one wants our charities or houses of worship to be torn apart by partisan campaign politics." — Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)


"In order to protect the integrity and independence of churches and houses of worship and faith-based charities, we need to ensure that they do not endorse or oppose political candidates and become politicized."  Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)

“The Johnson Amendment is common sense and to get rid of it now would have dire consequences for our democracy.” — Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA)


“What we do not want though is to legitimate using religious institutions as simply a conduit for political contributions or for candidate or party-centered political advocacy. . . [We should] all consult our common sense and our common experience on this matter before we take the step to bring partisan, candidate-centered politics into our churches.” — Rep. David Price (D-NC)


"The Johnson Amendment does not prevent houses of worship from speaking out about any political or social issue that they are passionate about, that they hold dear. This should be clear to all of us from churches, synagogues, mosques in our district, that engage in social justice movements and voice their well regarded opinions to us regularly." Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY)

"[The Johnson Amendment] has allowed charitable organizations to concentrate on their exempt purposes and not to be distracted or coopted by partisan campaigns. Without it, houses of worship would be exposed to political pressure to endorse candidates."  Rep. Mike Quigley  (D-IL)


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The Scalise/Hice Bill


The Scalise/Hice Bill


S. 264 / H.R. 781

“The Free Speech Fairness Act”

What The Bill Does:

In January 2017, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) introduced this bill on the Senate side and Representatives Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Jody Hice (R-GA) introduced it on the House side. These bills are identical to a bill introduced last Congress in conjunction with Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an annual event during which certain groups try to persuade religious leaders to break federal law and endorse candidates for public office.

The bill does not fully repeal current law, but significantly undermines it. It would allow tax-exempt organizations—both houses of worship and secular nonprofits—to make statements endorsing or opposing candidates for public office so long as those statements are made in the ordinary course of carrying out their tax-exempt purpose and don’t incur more than de minimis incremental expenses. Although this might sound like a narrow exemption to current law, it is quite broad.

Under this bill, an organization could endorse one or more candidates in all of its activities, correspondence, and other written material. For example, the president of a large university could endorse a candidate in its weekly alumni email. A pastor could include an endorsement of a candidate in his sermon every Sunday, in the lesson taught at each Bible study, and in every bulletin or newsletter his church issues. This would allow partisan campaign politics to pervade every aspect of the organization, fundamentally changing its purpose and character.  

The Status of the Bill:

This bill has been added onto the tax reform package.

Read AU's Congressional Testimony Opposing this Bill.

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The Repeal Bill


The Repeal Bill


H.R. 172

What The Bill Does:

This bill, introduced by Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) in January 2017, would completely repeal the law that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates. Both religious and secular tax-exempt organizations could “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign” supporting or opposing a political candidate for public office. Jones has been introducing this bill for more than 15 years. In 2002, the House actually voted down this bill 178-239, with 46 Republicans voting against it. 

The Status of the Bill:

The bill has not moved. 

Read AU's Congressional Testimony Opposing this Bill.