Politics in the pews: Congress weighs allowing churches to campaign

St. Mary's Catholic Church in Austin during service (KXAN Photo)
St. Mary's Catholic Church in Austin during service (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Senate is expected to vote on a nationwide tax reform bill this week and senators are weighing whether to include a measure to allow churches, charities and other non-profits to directly get involved in political races.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment, which bans direct electioneering by tax-exempt churches, could be part of the measure that goes to President Donald Trump’s desk.

The U.S. House of Representatives already approved a similar measure; however, the idea will have to pass the U.S. Senate and then details would be worked out between the two chambers before going to the president’s desk.

The Senate bill currently does not have the votes to pass, but some Republican senators are asking for the repeal to be included to change their vote to a yes.

“You have pastors on their own private property in their churches that from time to time simply want to inform people about what they feel about issues that are being voted on at the ballot box or someone that’s running for office,” said Jonathan Saenz, attorney from Texas Values. He joined a group of pastors who sent this letter to D.C. asking for a repeal of the amendment.

Saenz says it’s “restricting the First Amendment a lot of times and shouldn’t be. So I think the effort now is just to strip this language out.”

Religious groups however are split on the issue. Rev. Jim Rigby from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church fears “corporate donors can give money to me to speak about fracking and it’s not accountable and therefore not limited. And it’s tax deductible.”

Rigby worries repealing the law would allow big donors to funnel money to candidates that won’t be traceable to the IRS. The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that money is free speech in America.

“I think who loses in democracy, but who wins is vested, corporate, money power,” said Rigby.

The change would allow churches to endorse, pay for political material and actively campaign for political candidates. It would also allow donors to write off donations to churches for that purpose. Right now churches are tax-exempt be filing as 501(c)3 organizations in the tax code. To get around this, many organizations file as 501(c)4 so they can contribute politically, but most churches do not do this.

The Joint Congressional Committee on Taxation estimates repealing the Johnson Amendment would move $1.7 billion to churches to engage in political activity instead of affiliated political organizations.

Most church groups don’t have to file IRS tax returns, so some campaign finance reform advocates fear this would allow donors with big pockets to donate to political campaigns without the public’s knowledge.

President Trump pledged to repeal the Johnson Amendment in his race for President in 2016.

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