During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland Thursday, Donald Trump again called for the repeal of the restrictions on tax-exempt religious organizations getting involved in politics.
Known as the Johnson Amendment, devised in 1954 Lyndon B. Johnson when he was in the U.S. Senate, the law prohibits religious organizations from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns. The penalty for such activity is the loss of an organization’s tax exempt status.
“You have so much to contribute to our politics, yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits,” said Trump as he thanked the evangelical community for their support.
It was a repeat of similar remarks he made earlier this year.
“I have so many ministers that are endorsing me. So many friends and pastors. And they’re all afraid to get too involved because they don’t want to lose their tax exemption. It really is a serious problem because they’re so afraid to talk . . . they’re afraid to get involved politically,” said Trump in February.
But long before Trump joined the presidential race, many pastors, including anti-gay pastors Jerry Falwell and Pat Roberson, had a history of speaking out on political and social issues, including making political endorsements. In 2008, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) was credited with helping pass Proposition 8 in California, which made gay marriage illegal at the time. Earlier this year, a group of black pastors endorsed Hillary Clinton.
In 2015, Los Angeles Times reporter David Lauter cited Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in an article he wrote about the possibility of churches losing their tax exempt status for speaking out against gay marriage.
In his Obergefell v. Hodges opinion, the ruling that legalized same sex marriage nationwide, Kennedy wrote, “Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”
Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is worried repealing the exemption rules could cause “tremendous damage” to religion. “The Republican platform seeks to turn America’s houses of worship into miniature political action committees,” wrote Lynn in statement. “I can’t imagine a more disruptive idea for our nation’s religious community or a real impediment to campaign finance reform.”
Added Lynn, “Religious communities are places Americans can go to escape the partisan divide of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ that has polarized our nation. Repealing the ‘no-politicking’ rule would inevitably lead some houses of worship to focus on supporting candidates in exchange for financial and other aid.”
Bishop John Joseph Reid, of Divine Mercy Chapel in Wilton Manors, said that repealing the restrictions would embolden the churches that are already involved in politics. It would, he said, give them more power and influence. “It’s going to be worse for everybody. They’ll be using their churches, creating more fear and more hatred.”
Pastor Leslie Rutland-Tipton of Church of the Holy Spirit Song in Wilton Manors said the law doesn’t impact her church because politics is kept far away from the church’s activities. “Our church does not engage in political lobbying or action. The church is not the place for that.” She joked that her church has too much religious and spiritual work to finish to spend time on politics.
As for the churches that do get involved in politics, she said they should take a look at why they exist.
“I also believe it is a good attempt to maintain the separation of church and state, so that we don't have what we are seeing more and more of- candidates tripping over themselves trying to prove their religious bonafides,” said Rabbi Noah Kitty of Congregation Etz Chaim.
But Kitty added that ultimately it’s hard to trust what Trump says.
“The problem with Trump having a position on anything is that he is as likely as not to change his mind,” she noted.