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.
- Read “Repealing the Johnson Amendment: legal and ecclesiological problems” by Thomas Reese for National Catholic Reporter, Feb. 9, 2017.
- Read “What Could Churches Really Do If Trump Convinced Congress to Repeal the Johnson Amendment?” by Howard Gleckman for Forbes magazine, Feb. 9, 2017.
- Read “Should the Johnson Amendment Be Repealed? Implications for the Jewish Community” by Steven Windmueller in Jewish Philanthropy, Feb. 7, 2017.
- Read “Losing the Johnson Amendment Would Destroy the Unique Political Role of Nonprofits” by the editors of Nonprofit Quarterly, Feb. 6, 2017.
- Read “The Johnson Amendment in 5 Questions and Answers” by Tom Gjelten for NPR, Feb. 3, 2017.
- Watch “Why Trump won’t destroy the Johnson Amendment,” a discussion segment of the MSNBC program Morning Joe, Feb. 3, 2017.
- Read “Trump wants to ‘totally destroy’ a ban on churches endorsing political candidates” by Alissa Wilkinson for Vox, Feb. 7, 2017. The takeaway: The story delves deeply into the consequences of a repeal, especially what it would mean for nonreligious nonprofits.
- Read “Trump Wants to Make Churches the New Super PACS” by Emma Green for The Atlantic, Aug. 2, 2016.
- Read an undated report that outlines the history of and the legal challenges to electioneering by nonprofits, including houses of worship. The report appears on the website of the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, which was organized to advise Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley in his investigation of the finances of televangelists.
- Read a series of position papers from various religious leaders supporting and opposing a repeal of the Johnson Amendment submitted to Grassley’s commission in 2012 and 2013.
- Read “Trump’s religious freedom executive order can be successful” by Jim Campbell for The Hill, May 5, 2017. The takeaway — Campbell, of The Alliance Defending Freedom, says the order could be ignored, or the government could “snap into widespread action in defense of religious freedom.”
- Read “Trump’s Religious Liberty Order Doesn’t Answer Most Evangelicals’ Prayers” by Kate Shellnutt for Christianity Today, May 4, 2017. The takeaway — without conscience exemptions for dealing with LGBT anti-discrimination laws, most evangelicals say the order has no teeth.
- Read “Trump’s religious liberty order slammed as ‘pretty much nothing’” by David Gobson for Religion News Service, May 4, 2017. The takeaway — social and religious conservatives called it “boilerplate” and more.
- Read “Religious liberty executive order draws mixed reviews” by Adelle Banks for Religion News Service, May 4, 2017. The takeaway — some of those who support Trump describe the executive order as a “first step.”
- Read “Annotated: Trump’s Executive Order On Religious Liberty” by NPR Staff for NPR on May 4, 2017. The takeaway — NPR reporters break down the executive order’s text and analyze it. Their general feeling is it is largely symbolic.
Polls, surveys and reports
- Read about a LifeWay poll released in September 2016 that found only 19 percent of Americans agree with the statement “it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse political candidates during a church service.”
- Read about a Pew Research Center survey released in August 2013 that found two-thirds of Americans think clergy should not endorse political candidates.
- Read “Government Regulation of Political Speech by Religious and Other 501 (c)(3) Organizations: Why the Status Quo is Untenable and Proposed Solutions.” The 2013 report is the product of the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, a project of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which advised Grassley during his investigation of televangelists and their finances. The report recommends that the law prohibiting political campaign participation and intervention by 501(c)(3) organizations not be repealed.
Supporters of a repeal
The American Center for Law and Justice supported the “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005.” Contact Gene Kapp, media director.
The ACLJ’s chief counsel, Jay Sekulow, has said the Johnson Amendment prevents religious leaders from expressing their freedom of conscience.
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.
The Family Research Council is a Christian organization promoting the traditional family unit and the Judeo-
Christian value system upon which it is built.
Priests for Life is one of the largest anti-abortion groups in the country. The Rev. Frank Pavone is the group’s leader.
Pavone issued a statement in support of a repeal on Feb. 2, 2017.
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.
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.
Opponents of a repeal
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The National Council of Nonprofits helps nonprofits achieve greater collective impact in local communities across the country. Tim Delaney is president and CEO, and Rick Cohen serves as director of communications and operations. The organization can be contacted through its website.
In March, the NCN launched a campaign against repeal of the Johnson Amendment.
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.
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
Randall Balmer holds the John Phillips Chair in Religion at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. He is an expert on American religious history and especially American evangelicalism and the role of religion in American presidential politics. He is the author of Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter; Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America; and God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency From John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.
Balmer opposes a repeal, calling such efforts “utter nonsense.”
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 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.