Not long ago, I heard Donald Trump claim that the government had taken away the clergy’s right of free speech and that, if elected, he would “restore” that right.
That caught my ear, because I knew right away he was referring to the so-called “Johnson Amendment.” That amendment, really part of the IRS tax code for 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporations, allows tax-exempt corporations to support political candidates in exchange for giving up their tax-free status.
There is nothing in the law that prohibits these corporations from supporting a candidate — there are no fines and no other repercussions. However, the law was written so that corporations that do not pay taxes could not use that annual tax saving to support political candidates. They can support causes and retain their tax-free status, but they cannot support candidates and retain their tax-free status. It is simply a matter of free choice, pick supporting political candidates or retaining a tax-free status, but not both, and there is the rub.
The conservative religious groups that Trump is appealing to want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to be able to campaign for the candidate of their choice and keep their tax-free status. If allowed, this would require you, the taxpayer, to support their political candidate indirectly by having you pay higher taxes to compensate for their tax exemption, while allowing them to divert their tax savings to the political candidate of their choice.
Trump, the Republican Party and the religious groups they are pandering to — fundamentalist evangelical Christians — think religious groups should be able to support the candidate of their choice on the taxpayer’s dime.
The IRS seldom prosecutes violations of this tax law, even when clergy advertise they are going to violate those laws. Every year since 2008, on the last Sunday in September, thousands of clergy across the country have engaged in what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a Christian Right political move to encourage clergy to openly and publically endorse political candidates from the pulpit in direct violation of the very law that allows them a tax free status.
As Time Magazine reported in June: “‘Repealing the (Johnson) amendment was a priority of the Trump campaign in the GOP platform. They understand the importance of religious organizations and nonprofits, but religious organizations in particular, which is what the Johnson Amendment affects, to have the ability to speak freely, and that they should not live in fear of the IRS,’ said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who is on the Republican platform committee. ‘That is a priority in the platform, and from the Trump folks, it is a priority of the campaign, and will be a priority of the administration.’”
Adam Chodorow, professor of law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, reports: “Few would suggest that religious views have no place in the public square or that religious views should not inform one’s political decisions. Indeed, the problem isn’t that churches want to become politically involved. To a large extent, they already are. It’s that they want to make use of government subsidies to do so.”
That brings me to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allows anyone — providing they have enough money — to buy and sell politicians and elections at will. Every individual and corporation, without any restrictions, is allowed to contribute anonymously as much as they want, including foreign-owned corporations.
If tax-free religious organizations can support candidates by giving them as much money as they want, it is much more likely people who want to support the same candidate will give their money to a tax-free religious organizations where the donor knows 100 percent of their contribution, at least in theory, will go to the candidate, instead of giving it to organizations that solicit campaign contributions from which they have to pay expenses.
In effect, religious organizations will become political action committees, not houses of worship, and will experience the very division and lack of trust within the congregation that we already see in the current divisive and volatile election campaign.
Whether churches become money-laundering establishments for politicians is up to you. Your vote for candidates who support problematic changes to tax-exemption laws can determine the future of your community, your place of worship and your country. Vote wisely.
Tom Waddell is the president of the Maine chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.