During his campaign for President, Donald Trump courted religious conservatives by promising that, as Commander-in-Chief, he would repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment, which prevents non-profit organizations (including churches) from engaging in open political speech.
The Amendment is a 1954 IRS tax code provision that has long dogged religious leaders who want a more front-and-center role in politics, particularly Republican politics. It prevents any non-profit organization from “directly or indirectly” campaigning for, endorsing, or raising money for any political candidate, and requires that these same institutions do little beyond educating their flocks on matters of policy.
The provision isn’t regularly used. In the sixty or so years its been in effect, there’s only been a single investigation into a church group’s political machinations. But right-of-center legal organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom, have called the law an unconstitutional attempt at censorship—even if the churches are technically self-censoring.
And for leaders like Trump-ally Jerry Fallwell, Jr. its not just protection from the IRS they seek, its also the ability to spend money in political campaigns, like a SuperPAC.
Thursday morning, Trump’s words on the matter were strong: “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.”
Democrats are obviously none to happy about religious organizations suddenly acquiring the ability to be major political players, given that most politically active churches lean conservative. But dropping the Johnson rule might actually help some progressive organizations.
Donald Trump has already filed for re-election in 2020, and, since they can’t campaign against an active candidate, left-leaning non-profits are technically prohibited from attacking the President by name.
That means either they spend the next four years, policing their own protest for signs that they could be running afoul of the Johnson Amendment themselves (and risk a Trump-led IRS investigation), or hope that Trump frees up non-profits from the constricting provisions.
Trump, intentionally or unintentionally, may have given them no choice but to side with Republican-leaning churches to earn back their ability to engage in political activity.
Because the Johnson Amendment is technically an IRS rule, Congress has to dismiss it. Trump has not mentioned attacking the rule through an Executive Order, even though he speaks regularly about religious freedom.