By Rachel Wallace
Since its enactment in 1954, the Johnson Amendment has prevented tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations like churches and charities from participating in political campaigns. Organizations that violate the amendment have run the risk not only of losing their tax-exempt statuses, but also of having to pay taxes on items and services they already bought free of tax.
Although it is widely known as an amendment, this restriction is actually a law. It was created by Lyndon Johnson—the Texan who assumed office when John Kennedy was assassinated—to prevent nonprofit organizations from promoting his running opponent in the next election.
The Johnson law was originally passed without controversy, and has only been challenged in court three times over the past 63 years—in 1983, 1990, and 2000. President Trump brought the law back into focus during his campaign and has reiterated his intention to “get rid of and totally destroy” it in multiple speeches since his election.
Trump says the Johnson law is an infringement on the right to freedom of speech. He believes nonprofit organizations—especially churches and charities—have “much to contribute” to American politics and should be able to “speak freely and without fear of retribution.” On this point, he has the support of local representatives from the Southern Baptist Convention.
“As the amendment stands now, churches and charities don’t have the freedom to speak out,” says a local pastor who was wary of being misrepresented in the media and requested to remain anonymous, “so if the opportunity were afforded, I’m sure many would oblige.”
However, there are some who claim repealing the Johnson law is a move towards ending the separation of church and state. Among them is Senator Bernie Sanders, who took to Twitter to express his opinion after Trump announced he would repeal the Johnson law. “This absurd and unconstitutional law must not be passed,” Sanders wrote, “we must not end the separation of church and state.”
“The separation of church and state” is a phrase first coined by Thomas Jefferson in 1802. In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson wrote that America should make no laws prohibiting the free exercise of religious institutions, “thus building a wall of separation between church and state”—a concept which became the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
“Those who truly understand the separation of church and state desire only for the equal opportunity to speak on what they choose to,” says the local pastor. “Historically, the state was never supposed to tell the church what they could or couldn’t say.”
Jefferson’s words have not always been considered absolute, and the extent to which church and state should be separated has long been subject for impassioned debate. Trump’s repeal of the Johnson law is not likely to change that, say representatives from the Southern Baptist Convention. “Tensions are on the rise in America, and we are tending more and more towards disagreement,” the local pastor says.
In addition to the separation of church and state, Trump’s vow to repeal the Johnson law has also raised concerns about campaign finance. According to NBC, Trump’s $58.8 billion campaign was funded by donations from political action committees, special interest groups and average American citizens. Should the repeal pass, tax-free donations given to churches and charities could be added to that list, making nonprofit organizations bigger money players in politics.
Nevertheless, those involved with churches and charities can expect to see more political action if the Johnson law is repealed.