Stop Congress from injecting partisan campaign politics into America’s houses of worship

As faith leaders, we know what it means to speak truth to power. We come from traditions in which we are called to create a more just world by a mandate greater than our own. We pray with our feet by marching on the streets and by organizing in our houses of worship. Our sanctuaries are spaces for quiet introspection and the loud clang of engaged moral action. These are spaces where we speak across lines of difference, unconcerned by the pressures of politicking and money that tarnish the moral and political discourse that takes place beyond our walls.

But we are concerned that this might change if the Trump administration and several members of Congress get their way by repealing the Johnson Amendment, which is the law that prohibits houses of worship, and all 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. This provision in the tax code protects our houses of worship and charitable nonprofits by ensuring that they are not torn apart by partisan campaign politics or used as tools by candidates and parties for their own political gain.

{mosads}The latest attempt to undermine the Johnson Amendment is tucked into a House of Representatives spending measure—the House Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill. If passed, the legislation would make it incredibly difficult for the IRS to investigate houses of worship that have violated the Johnson Amendment by requiring consent from Congress before enforcement action can take place. The provision would bring enforcement of the Johnson Amendment to a halt. Yet, the House is poised to adopt this bill in the coming weeks.

We are not the only faith leaders voicing support for the Johnson Amendment. We have joined a letter to Congress from 4,500 faith leaders and our organizations have joined 104 other denominational and religious organizations that support keeping the Johnson Amendment strong. In addition, 5,800 charitable nonprofit organizations have joined letters supporting the Johnson Amendment, and opinion polls show the American public strongly supports the current law.

For us, the issue is simple. We object to any measure that would chip away at the protections that keep our churches, synagogues and mosques places of inclusion and unity, rather than places of division and discord. Houses of worship are meant to serve the needs of the community, not the needs of political operatives. They are spaces where individuals from every walk of life or political affiliation can come together and worship. Our congregations do not want to see partisan campaign politics injected into our weekly services.

We also know that houses of worship and their leaders have robust free speech rights under the Johnson Amendment and can speak out on political and social issues—as we are doing by authoring this very piece. Our commitment to building a better world is not and cannot be partisan. Houses of worship can take positions on issues of moral, social or political concern; lobby on legislation and endorse or oppose non-partisan referendums; host candidate forums and distribute answers to candidate questionnaires; and encourage people to vote, including through voter registration drives and getting people to the polls. Repealing the Johnson Amendment would threaten our ability to engage in these practices by introducing undue partisan pressures that would tarnish the moral ground on which we stand. Regardless of where we stand on the issues, the Johnson Amendment protects our ability to speak from our faith tradition without fear of partisan entanglement or interference.

We, along with thousands of other faith leaders across the country, stand in opposition to this provision. We ask members of Congress to join us and defend the integrity and independence of houses of worship by keeping the Johnson Amendment strong.

Margaret Magee, OSF, is president and board chair of Franciscan Action Network. The. Rev. Jimmie R. Hawkins is director of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness.


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