Deep in the 420-plus pages of the tax reform bill that Republicans are trying to squeeze through Congress are a few lines that would allow some tax-exempt organizations like churches and charities to endorse or oppose political candidates without fear of government blowback.
Repealing what is known in the tax code as the Johnson Amendment is, to many, a dangerous and radical stomping on the long-held line that separates church from state. The repeal could lead, many warn, to politicking from the pulpit and an unprecedented flow of tax-free political money into houses of worship and charities.
Maybe even worse, the big-bucks windfall, some fear, could force these organizations — known by their tax code standing, 501(c)(3)s — into taking sides in an increasingly partisan nation.
It's a dire prediction because, if you can't get away from politics at your local soup kitchen or neighborhood church, where can you go?
President Donald Trump has stumped for the measure, framing it in First Amendment terms earlier in 2017 when he said, "I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution." Well-funded right-wing groups like Ralph Reed's Faith & Freedom Coalition and the Alliance Defending Freedom have backed him, and are pressuring Congress to include a repeal of the Johnson Amendment in the final version of the tax reform bill. (The measure is now in the House's draft of the bill, but not the Senate's version. The two bills must be reconciled into one before it can be passed into law.)
On the other side of the debate are more than 4,000 faith leaders, more than 100 religious groups (including Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, several Baptist groups, the Episcopal Church, the American Jewish Committee and the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America) and more than 5,000 nonprofits that are in favor of keeping the Johnson Amendment, which has been part of the tax code for more than 60 years.
"The groups that are directly impacted [by the proposal] are all telling Congress not to do this. And that should tell us something," says Amanda Tyler, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. "And it's not just Washington groups. It's constituents across the country who are raising real concerns about what this would do to their communities."