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Are churches being politically silenced?

Los Angeles Times

In an attempt to cement support from conservative Christians, Donald (“I love the evangelicals!”) Trump has been promising to seek the repeal of a law that prohibits members of the clergy from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit. “You’ve been silenced,” Trump told 700 pastors and their spouses last week. But he promised that “we’re going to get your voice back.”

Trump is wrong. The restrictions imposed on churches by the law — which also apply to secular tax-exempt organizations — don’t prevent them from speaking out about political issues; it simply prohibits them from endorsing or opposing candidates. And even that restriction has been lightly enforced by the Internal Revenue Service, to the benefit of both political parties.

The target of Trump’s criticism is the Johnson Amendment, which was added to the tax code in 1954 at the behest of then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson. The amendment prohibits so-called 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organizations, secular and religious alike, from participating in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.

The amendment doesn’t prevent priests, rabbis or other members of the clergy from sermonizing about political issues from poverty to climate change to terrorism, nor does it prohibit them from endorsing candidates in their personal capacities. Rather, it says to churches and other nonprofits that if they seek the benefits of tax-exempt status they must refrain from a subset of political speech. The underlying principle is that when taxpayers provide a financial benefit to charitable organizations (including religious ones), they shouldn’t be asked to subsidize political views with which they might disagree.

Nevertheless, many religious leaders — particularly politically conservative evangelicals — have railed against the restrictions as a violation of their 1st Amendment rights. The Republican convention that nominated Trump also approved a platform that calls for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.

Some argue that repealing the amendment wouldn’t make much difference because the IRS isn’t aggressively enforcing it. Others note that most members of the clergy abide by the restrictions. A survey published earlier this month by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life found that 14 percent of frequent churchgoers reported hearing clergy speak in favor or against a presidential candidate in recent months.

But even if the rule is mostly being observed, repealing it could embolden more priests and preachers to turn religious services into campaign rallies.

Moreover, at a time when the Supreme Court has equated political speech with spending on elections, churches and other religious organizations might be tempted to involve themselves even more in the political process, and the collection plate could become a conduit for political contributions.

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