Several House Republicans are backing a bill that would give churches the First Amendment right to endorse political candidates without jeopardizing their tax-free status, a move that would essentially wipe away a 63-year-old law that draws a clear line between politics and the pulpit.
In order to do so, GOP lawmakers entered language into a spending bill that would withhold funds from the IRS that were to be used to enforce the law, the Associated Press reported. Previous attempts to get rid of the law outright have failed, but the latest indirect approach passed through a House Appropriations subcommittee on Thursday.
Republicans backing the bill claim that the law, as it stands, is unclear and sows confusion among religious leaders who do not want to find themselves in the crosshairs of the IRS. They also think that certain political topics should be discussed in a spiritual context.
“I believe that churches have a right of free speech and an opportunity to talk about positions and issues that are relevant to their faith,” said Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH), a supporter of the measure.
Fellow Ohio Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi echoed the sentiments and argued that the law was not being applied equally across the aisle.
“Some churches, including my own, have been very concerned about appearing political in any way shape or form,” he said. “Churches I went to that were primarily in Democrat areas, that I would go to because I had a Democrat district, the local candidates on the Sunday mornings before the election would be introduced, would speak from the pulpit about the campaign and why the congregation should vote for them.”
However, Democrats worry that nixing the law would muddy the distinction between church and state. They claim that religious leaders have the same First Amendment rights as everyone else but should not expect to remain tax exempt if they start talking politics.
The law – titled the Johnson Amendment due to its support from then-senator Lyndon Johnson, who was upset that he was target by nonprofit groups that smeared him as a communist – was passed in 1954 and has been invoked periodically throughout the years.