House Committee Using Appropriations Scheme to Exempt Churches from IRS Rules

July 14, 2017

House Republicans are using the budget process to undermine the Johnson Amendment, the law that prevents churches and religious institutions from campaigning for political candidates. This “backdoor repeal” could result in a torrent of unaccountable money funneled through tax-exempt churches to their favored candidates. The Center for Inquiry (CFI), which advocates for reason, secularism, and humanist values, characterized the scheme as underhanded and blatantly favoring Christian churches. 

Today, the House Financial Services and General Government subcommittee will be marking up the House’s FY 18 Financial Services appropriations bill. Section 116 states that the IRS may not use any funds to investigate a church for breach of the Johnson Amendment without the personal signoff of the IRS Commissioner, who must also report to Congress on the investigation. While the Johnson Amendment prevents all tax-exempt nonprofits, including organizations such as CFI, along with religious groups and churches, from endorsing or giving money to political candidates, the proposed change would make the law essentially unenforceable only as applied to churches.

“This is a blatant attempt to exempt Christian churches, and churches alone, from complying with the Johnson Amendment, which has kept houses of worship from becoming de facto campaign offices for politicians,” said Nick Little, Legal Director of the Center for Inquiry. “Note that there is no provision for secular, non-faith-based nonprofits to enjoy the same privileges, nor does it mention anything about synagogues, mosques, or any other religious institution.”

The Johnson Amendment has the support of a broad range of organizations that span the ideological and theological spectrum, and of 77% of the American public. CFI is a signatory to a coalition letter opposing Section 116 of the Financial Services Appropriations bill.

“The religious right won’t tell you this, but the current law doesn’t restrict any group’s free speech rights,” said Little. “Nonprofits and religious groups can, and do, speak out freely on the issues that matter to them, including abortion, health care, LGBTQ rights, and the environment. What they can’t do is tell their parishioners who to vote for, or donate church money to a candidate’s campaign.”

“Only members of the radical religious right are looking to shackle the Johnson Amendment,” he said. “And they believe they have devised a scheme to do just that. We can’t let them get away with it.”

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at  

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