GOP Tax Bill Would Allow Ministers to Endorse Political Candidates From the Pulpit

The tax bill proposed by House Republicans on Thursday includes a proposal to modify the Johnson Amendment, the 63-year-old law prohibiting politicking by churches that has been a favorite target of conservative Christian groups and of President Trump.

The Republicans’ bill would make it legal for ministers and other religious leaders to endorse candidates from the pulpit but stops short of allowing other political participation such as financial contributions from churches to campaigns.

The bill stipulates that a religious institution wouldn’t be found to have violated the law “solely because of the content of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.”

That’s the protection that some religious leaders, mainly conservative Christians, have requested for years in the name of “pulpit freedom,” even though the Internal Revenue Service has almost never penalized clergy for the content of a sermon.

“It’s really a carve-out to make sure, in the views of those who support it, that the pulpit is a free-speech zone, if you will,” said Charles Haynes, an expert on religious liberty at the Newseum.

Trump often touted his opposition to the Johnson Amendment when speaking to evangelical pastors during his presidential campaign, and at the National Prayer Breakfast soon after his inauguration, he said he would “totally destroy” the 1954 provision. He issued an executive order in May, surrounded by religious leaders he invited to the Rose Garden, in which he directed the IRS not to penalize clergy for political speech.

What House Republicans propose in their tax bill would not “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. First, their proposal specifically applies only to religious institutions, not to all tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, which are restricted from supporting political candidates under the law. Haynes said that treating religious groups differently in this way appears to be legal; the other groups “don’t have free exercise of religion to be protected.”

Second, the tax bill’s language would only lift the ban on endorsing a candidate during a speech, such as a sermon or church teaching. It would not free churches up entirely to participate in the political process — a prospect that many observers had feared when Trump spoke about eliminating the code.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Julie Zauzmer