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House GOP's Tax Plan Would Open Up Politics To Churches — And Charities

Salvation Army Soldier Daniel Aherns collects donations on 5th Ave. at Rockefeller Center, Monday, July 13, 2009 in New York.
Salvation Army Soldier Daniel Aherns collects donations on 5th Ave. at Rockefeller Center, Monday, July 13, 2009 in New York.

Highlight from our show on Johnson Amendment repeal proposal:

The proposed repeal of the tax law that prevents religious leaders from making political endorsements from the pulpit could also open up the electioneering floodgates for charities.

“They would all now be permitted under the House tax bill to engage in this kind of political electioneering,” Mark Silk, a religion professor at Trinity College, told host Tom Ashbrook in an On Point interview Wednesday.

Full show: Tax Plan Could Mean Politics At The Pulpit 

Much of the attention surrounding the House proposal to repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment has centered on the effect it could have on churches, synagogues and mosques – stoking concerns that pulpits would turn into soapboxes and community meeting places would turn into political rallies.

Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee told Tom that the Johnson Amendment repeal would “tear at the heart” of religious communities and change the very character of houses of worship; Daniel Blomberg of Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said the Johnson Amendment should go away because it’s a downright assault on First Amendment rights.

But beyond houses of worship, it could mean major changes for all 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, even secular ones — the Clinton Foundation and the Trump Foundation (now being wound down) are both 501(c)(3) groups, as is the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. They don’t pay corporate income taxes, and people who make donations to 501(c)(3) groups can deduct them from their own taxes.

The Johnson Amendment right now bars 501(c)(3) organizations – from the corner church to the Clinton Foundation –  from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

Under the House tax proposal, however, churches, charities and foundations would be able to keep that tax-exempt status, even if they’re directly supporting and endorsing candidates.

The original House proposal, Silk said, was narrowly tailored to just the religious sphere, allowing more political speech in sermons, homilies and religious teachings.

But the bill was amended in committee and allows every 501(c)(3) to maintain its tax status as long as the political speech was part of its "ordinary course of business."

It has some people in the nonprofit and religious communities, like the Baptist Joint Committee’s Tyler, concerned.

“We're really worried that changing the law in this way would open the floodgates for political contributions to be funneled through all 501(c)(3) organizations, fundamentally changing the nature of houses of worship and indeed our entire nonprofit sector,” Tyler said. “And that's why the vast majority of religious and denominational organizations secular nonprofits from across the board and across the country have raised their voices to ask Congress to keep the current law and not change it in this very troubling way.”

The Senate version of the GOP’s tax plan does not repeal the Johnson Amendment, but President Trump has vowed to get rid of it entirely.

Related: New York Times' David Leonhardt Says Tax Plan Would Help Rich, Hurt Middle Class 

This segment aired on November 29, 2017. The audio for this segment is not available.

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