For Immediate Release: November 2, 2017
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director
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The House Republican tax bill released today unconstitutionally privileges churches and other houses of worship by elevating them to a special class of nonprofit, free to electioneer for political candidates while remaining exempt from taxation, said the Center for Inquiry, characterizing the provision as a brazen sop to the religious right.
The tax bill includes the repeal of what is known as the Johnson Amendment, a decades-old IRS provision that prevents 501(c)(3) nonprofits such as churches and organizations like the Center for Inquiry (CFI) from endorsing or opposing political candidates. The House GOP is seeking to scrap this provision, but only as it applies to churches.
“Eliminating the Johnson Amendment for churches will enable religious organizations use their tax exempt donations to support election campaigns,” said Jason Lemieux, CFI’s Director of Government Affairs. “It is so transparently cynical, it would be hilarious if it weren’t so damaging to America’s secular democracy,” added Lemieux.
Despite the claims of the religious right, the Johnson Amendment has never prevented non-profits, religious or otherwise, from voicing their concerns on moral, ethical, and political issues. It merely requires that that tax-exempt nonprofits, including churches, refrain from directly endorsing or opposing a candidate for office. Churches can and often do speak out on issues such as abortion, immigration, LGBTQ rights, and climate change, all without fear of repercussion.
Money donated to churches can be written off the donor’s taxes, unlike money given to expressly political organizations, and churches are not required to file the disclosure forms regarding donations that secular nonprofits, such as CFI, file annually. Repealing the Johnson Amendment allows the wealthy to give unlimited sums of money to churches that can leverage these funds for electoral campaigns without any disclosure, and with the promise of a major tax break as a result. Under the law, the only restriction on church involvement in political campaigning will be that it must remain “de minimis,” a term the IRS has failed to define, and the enforcement of which would be next to impossible given the religious exemption from filing disclosures with the IRS.
“It was a bad idea when the GOP sought to repeal the Johnson Amendment in whole,” said Nick Little, CFI’s Vice President and General Counsel, “but repealing it only for churches for the benefit of their allies in the religious right is an abysmally bad idea. This would effectively break churches out of the existing tax structure, setting up a new, privileged category only for them. This blatantly violates the Establishment Clause, and we will take every legal means available to prevent it.”