It’s finally happening. President Trump is going to remove the Johnson amendment that prohibits pastors and other church leaders from supporting a political candidate at the pulpit. It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it?
The Johnson amendment states that churches can lose their 501(c)(3) tax exemption if one of its leaders explicitly endorses or opposes a political candidate. It was passed in order to silence non-profit organizations that were supporting Lyndon Johnson’s political opponents while he was still a senator. Churches and religious organizations were also included in the amendment. Eliminating the Johnson amendment has been a deep desire among church leaders ever since it was implemented in 1954.
President Trump announced his intention to do away with the amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast last week. 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. I will do that, remember,”
During his campaign, President Trump repeatedly spoke out against the Johnson amendment. He vowed that he would repeal it if elected. This is one of the many factors that won him the support of evangelical Christian leaders.
Needless to say, Trump’s commitment to removing the Johnson amendment has been lauded by religious leaders. Erik Stanley, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom said, “Americans don’t need a federal tax agency to be the speech police of churches or any other nonprofit groups, who have a constitutionally protected freedom to decide for themselves what they want to say or not say.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said “Pastors should be held accountable to God alone for what they say behind the pulpit, not the I.R.S.”
President Trump’s decision was made when he questioned church leaders about their reticence to speak out during elections. After being told that speaking out could cost them their tax-exempt status, Trump stated his opinion that the law was unfair.
Of course, Trump’s announcement was also met with scathing criticism from the left. What a shock! Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said, “President Donald Trump and his allies in the religious right seek to turn America’s houses of worship into miniature political action committees”
Other critics have argued that the Johnson amendment is necessary because it maintains the separation of church and state. They believe that abolishing this amendment will violate this separation.
As a matter of fact, using the threat of losing tax-exempt status to prevent pastors and other church leaders from using their freedom of speech is in itself a violation of the separation between church and state. When Thomas Jefferson wrote about such separation, he was expressing his belief that the government should not be empowered to interfere with what is said at the pulpit. That is exactly what the Johnson amendment does.
While the Johnson amendment is rarely enforced, there have been specific situations where it has targeted churches for expressing their political views. In an article written for the Daily Signal, Fred Lucas provides us with an example.
In a matter that deals more directly with what pastors oppose, the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, faced a near two-year investigation from the IRS after a 2004 sermon opposing the war in Iraq. The IRS dropped its investigation, but the church reportedly spent $200,000 in legal bills.
Churches should not have to worry about losing their tax-exempt status because they exercised their first amendment rights. Everyone should have the right to freely express their point of view. The government should not have the right to pressure church leaders into silence.
In a piece discussing the Johnson amendment, The Daily Wire’s Aaron Bandler wrote,
It’s a threat that hangs over the heads of pastors, whether they face pressure from outside groups, members or general fear that they’ll lose their tax-exempt status by speaking out on various issues. Consequently, pastors are less willing to share their opinions on important issues like abortion and religious liberty.
If President Trump, with the help of congress, is able to reverse the Johnson amendment, he will have removed one of the nation’s most egregious impediments to free speech.