To repeal or not to repeal? Trump and the Johnson Amendment

UPDATE: On May 4, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order that did not repeal the Johnson Amendment, but attempted to gut it. Most religious leaders were unhappy with it, some because they said it did not go far enough and others because they do not want to mix politics with religion. The Background section below includes updated resources.

During his campaign, President Trump promised multiple times to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower and named for then-Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson. The Johnson Amendment prohibits registered 501(c)(3) organizations — which include some religious congregations but also other nonprofits — from endorsing political candidates and participating in political campaigns, at the risk of losing their nonprofit status. To date, the law has been applied only rarely, including against a New York church that took out a political advertisement in a newspaper, and at an Episcopal church in California where the rector preached about George W. Bush, John Kerry and the Vietnam War.

Trump reignited debate over the Johnson Amendment in early February 2017 when he said during his remarks at his first National Prayer Breakfast that he would “destroy the Johnson Amendment.” The day before, the Free Speech Fairness Act, a modification of the Johnson Amendment that would allow houses of worship and other nonprofits to engage in political expression, was introduced in the House and the Senate.

Commentators are divided over the constitutionality of both the amendment and its possible repeal, and some are concerned any tampering with the status quo could throw the nonprofit sector into turmoil.

This edition of ReligionLink offers reporters resources and background information on the Johnson Amendment, its supporters and detractors and the pros and cons of a repeal.

Background

UPDATED BACKGROUND:

 

Polls, surveys and reports

Supporters of a repeal

  • Alliance Defending Freedom

    The Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom is a watchdog group that was founded by Bill Bright, the evangelical minister who started Campus Crusade for Christ, and several other evangelical leaders. It concerns itself with three main issues: religious liberty, “sanctity of life” and traditional marriage. It is based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Michael P. Farris is president. Use the website for media.

    The alliance has long supported an appeal of the amendment and organizes annual “Pulpit Freedom Sundays” in which it encourages pastors to violate the amendment during their sermons.

    Contact: 480-444-0020.
  • Family Research Council

    The Family Research Council is a Christian organization promoting the traditional family unit and the Judeo-Christian value system upon which it is built.

    Tony Perkins, FRC’s president, called Trump’s promise to overturn the amendment “outstanding — right on target” and wrote an op-ed supporting it.

    Contact: 866-372-6397.
  • Jerry Falwell Jr.

    Jerry Falwell Jr. is president of the evangelical Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. In the 2016 presidential campaign, he served on Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory board. Len Stevens is executive director of external communications for Liberty University.

    Falwell has spoken in support of a repeal of the Johnson Amendment.

  • Jody Hice

    Jody Hice is a Republican U.S. representative from Georgia and a Southern Baptist pastor. He introduced the Free Speech Fairness Act, an amendment to the Johnson Amendment, with House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La. Hice may be contacted via his website.

  • Steve Scalise

    Steve Scalise is a Republican U.S. representative who serves as the House majority whip and represents the First Congressional District of Louisiana. He introduced the Free Speech Fairness Act, which would modify the Johnson Amendment, with Rep. Jodi Hice, R-Ga. Scalise may be contacted via his website.

    Contact: 202-225-3015.

Opponents of a repeal

  • American Jewish Committee

    The American Jewish Committee is an international think tank and advocacy organization that works to identify and fight anti-Semitism and bigotry, protect human rights and protect Israel and Jewish life everywhere. Its executive director is David Harris. Contact via Jon Schweitzer, director of public affairs.

    Its director of government and international affairs, Jason Isaacson, has spoken against a repeal, saying, “Congress should resist this effort to fix what is not broken.”

  • Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

    The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is an umbrella organization of 15 Baptist bodies that work to promote religious liberty. They advise member denominations on religious liberties issues. It is based in Washington, D.C. Its executive director is Amanda Tyler, with J. Brent Walker serving as a consultant to the organization.

    Tyler spoke against a repeal in the pages of The New York Times.

  • Luis Cortes Jr.

    The Rev. Luis Cortes Jr. is the founder of Philadelphia-based Esperanza, one of the largest Hispanic evangelical networks in the nation. Cortes was a member of the commission for Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which in 2013 produced a report on government regulation of political speech in houses of worship.

    Contact: 215-324-0746.
  • Jo Anne Lyon

    Jo Anne Lyon is ambassador and former general superintendent of The Wesleyan Church in Indianapolis. She was a member of the commission for Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which recommended against changing tax laws for houses of worship in a 2013 report on government regulation of political speech.

  • Interfaith Alliance

    The Interfaith Alliance is the national nonpartisan advocacy voice of the interfaith movement. Media inquiries can be submitted through a form on the alliance’s website.

    Its president, Rabbi Jack Moline, has spoken against a repeal, saying it would “undermine religious freedom by plunging houses of worship into partisan politics.”

    Contact: 202-265-3000.
  • Ingrid Mattson

    Ingrid Mattson holds the London & Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College in London, Ontario, Canada, and is widely respected among American Muslims for her scholarship. She is an expert in Islamic law.

     

    Mattson was a member of the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, which recommended against a change of tax code laws with regard to government regulation of political speech among houses of worship.

  • Cal Thomas

    Cal Thomas is a syndicated conservative columnist and author whose work appears in USA Today and The Washington Times, among others. An evangelical Christian, he was vice president of the Moral Majority and has written about their influence on politics. He has called for a moratorium on the building of mosques in the U.S. and has otherwise been critical of Islam.

    Thomas wrote a column against repeal of the Johnson Amendment.

  • Jim Wallis

    The Rev. Jim Wallis is an evangelical author and commentator and the founder of Sojourners magazine, a periodical that tries to promote social change through Christian values. He has served on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and can comment on public policy issues.

    Wallis has said that a repeal of the Johnson Amendment would open the door to partisanship in houses of worship.

First Amendment scholars/attorneys

  • Robert Boston

    Robert Boston is senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and assistant editor of its monthly magazine, Church & State.

  • Gregg Ivers

    Gregg Ivers is a professor in the school of public affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is an expert on constitutional law and is the author of To Build a Wall: American Jews and the Separation of Church and State.