WASHINGTON – Churches should have the right to endorse political candidates and still retain their tax-exempt status under a provision in the House GOP’s tax overhaul plan.
The bill would require the withdrawal of a 63-year-old law credited to former President Lyndon Johnson when he served in the Senate.
Critics warn for the opening of a loophole in the law that could funnel tax-free money in campaigns. The provision would cost $2 billion in the next ten years, according to congressional scorekeepers.
The Johnson amendment law prohibits tax-exempt charitable organizations, such as churches, from participating, directly or indirectly, in political campaign in support or against a candidate. If the IRS determines that a group has violated the law, it may revoke the tax-exempt status.
The law doesn’t stop religious groups from weight to the public policy or to organize in a way that can benefit one side in a campaign.
Democrats have argued that the limit of the law comes too close to mixing church and state. They say that religious leaders have First Amendment rights, just like everyone else. But if they want to be political, they do not have a constitutional right not to pay taxes.
The GOP plan permits political activity by churches so long as there is a minimal cost.
Campaign finance groups warned the change could have far-reaching consequences, turning churches into tools for secret campaign spending,” said Tiffany Muller, chairman of the End of Citizens United.
Johnson introduced the measure in 1954, when he was a Democratic senator from Texas, driven by his anger over a few non-profit groups that had attacked him as a communist in a Senate campaign.
The law was signed by a Republican president Dwight Eisenhower — but the Republicans are criticized in the past years and promised to withdraw if part of the tax overhaul.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order in May to deter the IRS from enforcing the law.