Repeal of the “Johnson Amendment” (Nov 2017)

Churches and other religious organizations have the freedom to discuss public issues and to speak for or against legislation, but not to endorse candidates or contribute to election campaigns.

However, there has been a movement afoot to repealing the “Johnson Amendment,” which bans electoral activity by religious and other nonprofits. Most recently, a provision repealing the Johnson Amendment — but only for religious organizations — has been included in the U.S. House of Representatives tax bill. (See WCC’s E-Advocacy Alert)

Repealing the amendment would undermine the integrity, independence, and harmony of congregations and religious organizations by allowing them to take sides in partisan electoral politics. It would only serve to draw communities of faith into divisive and distracting arguments over candidates, and make churches one more conduit for uncontrolled “dark money” campaign contributions.

Accordingly, a huge number of nonprofits are opposed to the repeal. The Wisconsin Council of Churches has joined other Wisconsin-based faith groups in opposing the repeal by sending the following letter to Wisconsin’s congressional delegation.

November 5, 2017

The Honorable Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House
The Honorable Senator Tammy Baldwin
The Honorable Congressman Sean Duffy
The Honorable Congressman Mike Gallagher
The Honorable Congressman Glenn Grothman
The Honorable Senator Ron Johnson
The Honorable Congressman Ron Kind
The Honorable Congresswoman Gwen Moore
The Honorable Congressman Mark Pocan
The Honorable Congressman James Sensenbrenner

Dear Wisconsin Congressional Delegation,

We, the undersigned Wisconsin non-profit religious organizations, are opposed to efforts to weaken or repeal current law that prohibits tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

Congregations and religious organizations already have the freedom to speak publicly and to their members about moral and political issues. They can engage in public debate, host candidate forums, hold voter registration drives, encourage people to vote, help transport people to the polls, and (within limits) advocate on matters of public policy and legislation. They simply cannot both maintain their tax-exempt status and intervene in political campaigns by endorsing or opposing candidates or using their tax-exempt donations to contribute to candidates’ campaigns.
Allowing houses of worship and other tax-exempt religious organizations to engage in partisan political activity would cause great damage — to these organizations, to the political process, and to society at large.

If members vie to have a candidate or party endorsed by their congregation, the polarization and partisan acrimony of political campaigning would be divisive. Campaigns would try to manipulate and put pressure on faith leaders in order to get their congregation’s endorsement. Not only would this disrupt relationships of mutual trust and support between the members of a faith community, but also it would make it more difficult to have civil conversations about public issues in a congregation. The crucial distinction between deliberating and advocating as a community of faith about what public policies or legislation best serve the common good, on the one hand, and aligning the community with the partisan agenda of an outside group on the other, would be eroded.

In addition, tax-deductible donations to religious organizations that endorse candidates would become another conduit for undisclosed political contributions. Not only would this further corrode our political process, it will undermine the credibility, independence, and integrity of those organizations. As public trust in houses of worship, faith-based charities, and religious social service agencies declines, contributions for vital shelter, nutrition, and other assistance will suffer.

There is no good reason to weaken or eliminate the current legal prohibition of candidate endorsements and draw nonprofit organizations into partisan electoral campaigning. Please support keeping current law in place so that houses of worship, as well as religious and other organizations that serve those in need and speak on behalf of the common good, can continue to fulfill their mission as vital and constructive sectors of American society.

Thank you for your attention to our concerns.

Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation
Madison-area Urban Ministry
Wisconsin Council of Churches
Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice
Wisconsin Jewish Conference

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