The GOP tax bill should keep churches and charitable organizations out of politics

House Republicans have taken a small but worrisome step toward a long-held goal: allowing charities to directly participate in elections.

Tucked at the bottom of the 429-page tax reform bill released Thursday is a provision allowing churches and their auxiliaries to make political statements, including candidate endorsements, while maintaining their tax-exempt status.

“I don't want the IRS looming over our faith leaders in the community as they express their religious freedom,” Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas told reporters.

The measure represents a partial repeal of what’s known as the Johnson Amendment — a requirement, added to the tax code in the 1950s, that tax-exempt charitable organizations stay out of politics.

The amendment, named for Lyndon B. Johnson, who was then a U.S. senator, has served the country well. Even a partial repeal is problematic. On Thursday, Common Cause called it a “recipe for disaster.”

But a full repeal, sought by some Republicans, would be even worse. As the tax bill moves forward, Congress must do everything possible to keep the Johnson Amendment in place.

Republicans pushing partial repeal say the amendment takes away the free speech rights of pastors. Clerics should be permitted to publicly endorse or reject candidates, they argue, like other Americans.

But ministers and pastors already have that right. They can say whatever they want. They just don’t have the right to speak about candidates tax-free.

The First Amendment guarantees free speech, not tax-free speech. Yet the House bill, if passed intact, would advance that worrisome prospect.

We think carving out a First Amendment tax break for clerics is wrong. But we also think the damage might be contained if Congress limits the measure to churches, since many ministers and pastors already make their views clear in a general way.

Additionally, the Johnson Amendment has rarely been enforced against churches.

But some Republicans want more. They want a full repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which would allow all nonprofit charities to play a direct role in electoral politics, including making endorsements and raising funds.

It’s hard to overstate the damage that would do.

Americans already know about the flood of dark money into secretive nonprofit “social welfare” groups. Billions of dollars in special-interest money has poured into elections, distorting issues and turning legitimate debate into meaningless mud.

While social welfare donors can give money secretly under current law, they can’t deduct the gifts from their taxable income. But full repeal of the Johnson Amendment could make political donations tax deductible, a horrible concept.

Giving wealthy Americans a tax break for political donations is bad enough. But since ordinary taxpayers would have to cover the loss of revenue from those deductions, all of us would end up subsidizing the speech of secret special interests.

We know what would happen next. Full repeal of the Johnson Amendment would prompt the immediate creation of hundreds of bogus “charities,” fueled by tax-deductible donations, ready and able to further damage to our politics.

And what about legitimate, existing charities? Do we want the American Red Cross or the United Way directly endorsing candidates? Will donors pressure them to do so? Will charities be asked to donate to campaigns?

Dozens of members of the House are worried about those possibilities. In mid-October they wrote Rep. Brady, asking him to keep the Johnson Amendment intact.

“Americans do not want our houses of worship, charitable nonprofits, and foundations to become points of leverage for partisan politics,” they wrote. “Nor do they want tax-exempt charitable contributions to be funneled into political campaigns.”

We agree completely. In fact, many mainstream charities and churches also support the Johnson Amendment — they have no interest in direct political involvement, and worry ordinary donations will dry up if politics becomes a primary mission.

At its core, the Johnson Amendment is a deal. Americans give charities tax advantages, which encourage donations and help people in need. In exchange, the charities leave politics to the politicians.

That deal has worked for decades. If Republicans succeed in fundamentally changing that agreement, they risk further debasing our politics and ruining charities for everybody.