The U.S. House of Representatives quietly passed a spending bill on Thursday that could transform churches and other houses of worship into entities more closely resembling SuperPACs.
When House members passed a $1.2 trillion “megabus” spending bill yesterday in a 211-198 vote, media attention largely focused on the proposal’s high cost and potential challenges in the Senate. But according to the House Appropriations Committee press release, the bill contains a rider with a provision that would make it difficult to enforce the so-called Johnson Amendment, a part of the tax code that prohibits churches and other houses of worship from endorsing political candidates.
“Members of Congress had ample opportunities to strike [the provision] from this bill; when it was debated at the sub-committee level, at the full committee level, when Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz offered an amendment to cut it from the bill, and when it was on the floor of the House of Representatives,” Larry T. Decker, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America, said in a statement. “At every point, Congress failed to stand up for a law which has helped maintain the separation of church and state for more than 63 years.”
The provision, which is nestled within the “2018 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill” that was attached the larger House spending bill according to the press release, would stop funding most attempts by the IRS to penalize churches that violate tax law by engaging in explicit political action. Rather, the provision states any funds used to enforce the Johnson Amendment on churches would require agents to notify two congressional committees, endure a 90-day waiting period, and obtain sign-off from the IRS commissioner (nonprofits that are not faith based would still be subject to enforcement).
It’s unclear if the provision will survive when it reaches the Senate, but the potential consequences of signing the bill into law are already alarming advocates for the separation of church and state and scholars of tax law. As ThinkProgress reported in July, chipping away at the Johnson Amendment (which experts say is rarely enforced to begin with) could open the door for churches to receive funds while endorsing candidates—all while remaining tax-exempt.
“You could have unlimited dark money flowing to a campaign [from churches] if this gets passed, and there is nothing the IRS could do about it,” Nick Little, Center for Inquiry’s legal director, told ThinkProgress in July. “They would be getting a double benefit.”
Eradicating the Johnson Amendment has been a longtime goal of many leaders of the Religious Right, as well as President Donald Trump, who has promised to “totally destroy” the tax provision and has already weakened its enforcement by signing a much-discussed executive order in May. Trump’s own lawyer, Jay Sekulow, was one the first to advocate for doing away with the law, and even represented a church that lost its tax-exempt status for running ads against Bill Clinton (he lost).
But despite claims that the Johnson Amendment infringes on religious liberty, the idea is deeply unpopular with most people of faith. According to a 2016 PRRI poll, not only do 71 percent of Americans oppose allowing churches to endorse politicians while retaining their tax-exempt status, but so do majorities of every major U.S. faith group—including white evangelicals.
In fact, faith groups have actively lobbied against the idea: in April, 99 religious groups (including entire denominations) sent a letter to Congress imploring lawmakers to halt all efforts to politicize churches. More recently, over 4,000 faith leaders signed on to a letter specifically asking Congress not to weaken or repeal the Johnson Amendment.
“Changing the law would threaten the integrity and independence of houses of worship,” the letter reads in part. “We must not allow our sacred spaces to be transformed into spaces used to endorse or oppose political candidates.”