On the heels of statements made earlier this year regarding the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, President Donald Trump today signed an executive order that allows churches and other religious organizations to become more active politically. It also provides regulatory relief for organizations that object, on religious grounds, to a provision of Affordable Care Act that mandate employers to provide certain health services.
A link to this order can be found here.
The Johnson Amendment, as part of the Internal Revenue Code, can only be repealed by an act of congress. President Trump’s executive order does not repeal the amendment, but rather directs the IRS to use “maximum enforcement discretion” pertaining to religious organizations and political activities. The stated purpose of this order is to allow religious organizations and their leaders to support or oppose political candidates for public office without fear of retribution from the IRS in the form of revocation of exemption. The order does not apply to any other type of 501(c)(3) charitable organization.
Certain religious organizations and religious leaders have claimed the Johnson Amendment impedes on their right of free speech. However, the IRS has historically been very prudent in enforcing the Johnson Amendment with religious organizations. The Washington Post has reported that since 2008, at the behest of the Alliance for Defending Freedom, over 2,000 clergy have deliberately violated the Johnson Amendment as a form of protest against it, but only one has been audited by the IRS, with none of the violators being punished.
The Johnson Amendment regulates what all 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, including churches, are permitted to do when it comes to political activities. This amendment to the Internal Revenue Code is named for the sponsor of the 1954 legislation, then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. At the time, this amendment was passed as part of a larger bill with no recorded debate or discussion as to the ramifications on the separation of church and state. Because of the amendment, Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code includes a provision stating charitable organizations are “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”