1. Statement
  2. Voting & Elections

FCNL Opposes Efforts to Undermine the Johnson Amendment

By Rebecca Harris, May 4, 2017

FCNL opposes efforts by the president and members of Congress to roll back restrictions put in place in the 1950s that ban partisan political activity in houses of worship.

The Johnson Amendment, which maintains a barrier between electoral politics and tax-exempt religious and charitable activities, prevents religious institutions from becoming platforms for individual political candidates or parties. By preventing politicians from trying to dip into churches’ and charities’ bank accounts, they keep these institutions free of unfair, money-driven politics.

Yet the president is taking executive action to undermine the law and bills have been introduced in both the House and the Senate that would carve out substantial exceptions to the current rules.

Houses of worship today, with the Johnson Amendment in force, can speak openly on matters of faith, conscience, morality, and policy. But policy and partisan politics are not the same thing. FCNL believes that current law meets the needs of the faith community and promotes open, spirit-led dialogue on current issues.

Who supports repeal of the Johnson Amendment?

Politicians and their donors would save untold amounts of money every year if campaign contributions could be made through tax-deductible religious organizations. Yet we at FCNL believe our meetings, churches and houses of worship are not places for partisan political activity.

And faith communities appear to agree: three-quarters of people in the United States think that it is inappropriate for faith leaders to make political endorsements, and 80% say that religious institutions should not use donations to support political campaigns. Nine out of ten clergy members polled by LifeWay agreed that it is improper to endorse a candidate during a religious service.

What about freedom of speech?

The Johnson Amendment does not infringe on First Amendment rights. Nothing prevents faith leaders from sharing their opinions on specific policy issues in any context. Any member of any house of worship, including a minister, can endorse any candidate in their personal capacity. What the law prohibits is church leaders intervening in electoral politics from the pulpit, lectern, or altar. The tax-exempt house of worship is not and cannot be a political organization.

This critical law keeps political action committees from using their vast financial resources to take control of our religious institutions. We welcome political candidates to come worship with us, but a policy change that would ask us to worship them is unacceptable.

We do not need political machinations in our houses of worship

Repeal of the Johnson Amendment would encourage the manipulation of faith-based organizations by powerful financial interests. For instance, donors could refuse to support churches that don’t support their preferred candidate. At the same time, political donors would have new incentives to funnel campaign contributions through nonprofit organizations in order to qualify for tax exemptions.

Powerful politicians could attempt to take direct control of many houses of worship, pushing nonpartisan faith leaders to the margins of the conversation. Faith leaders could lose trust as prophetic witnesses and respected representatives of deep, eternal values.

FCNL opposes repeal of the Johnson Amendment

Each of our consciences leads us toward one candidate or another, but our connection to the divine is about more than politics. A religious service is fundamentally incompatible with a political rally. People in our country need to know that our places of worship will remain free of partisan politics steeped in financial interests. We need to know that our donations to our meetings, temples, churches, and other religious institutions will be used to fulfill our moral duties, do God’s will on Earth, and strengthen our communities’ connection to the divine. Partisan politics have no place in our religious practice, and we therefore oppose any and all efforts to undermine the Johnson Amendment.

Rebecca Harris

  • Program Assistant for Human Rights and Civil Liberties

Rebecca Harris works closely with Legislative Representative Yasmine Taeb on issues including the Syrian refugee situation, the United States’ “War on Terror,” military use of lethal drones, and the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. As Program Assistant, she conducts research, meets with congressional staff, and drafts letters and other materials.