Churches and the House Appropriation Bill

Last Thursday, the House passed an appropriation bill for fiscal year 2018. The vote was close—211 to 198—and it’s not clear that it will pass the Senate in any kind of recognizable form. Still, the bill has at least some relevance to churches.

See, sections 101-116 attempt to regulate the IRS, and section 116 would largely eviscerate the so-called Johnson Amendment.

A little background before we get to the meat of the post, though. First, what is an appropriation bill? It’s a proposed law that authorizes specific government spending.

And how about the Johnson Amendment? I’ve written about it several times on BCC; essentially, it’s the rule that tax-exempt organizations (including churches) can’t support or oppose candidates for office and, if they do so, they lose their tax exemptions.

Getting rid of it has been a big deal in GOP circles, and Trump has promised to “totally destroy” it.

But the appropriation bill can’t do that. So what does it do? Essentially, it limits the IRS’s ability to spend appropriated money on enforcing it. Interestingly, it doesn’t entirely forbid the IRS from enforcing the campaigning prohibition, though it could. In several other sections, the bill flatly prohibits the IRS from using appropriated funds to enforce certain provisions of the tax law (including the ACA penalty for not maintaining sufficient insurance).

Here, the House would set up hoops for the IRS has to jump through to use appropriated money to enforce the campaigning prohibition. Specifically, the IRS couldn’t revoke a church’s exemption for violating the campaigning prohibition unless (a) the Commissioner of Internal Revenue consented, and (b) within 30 days of the determination, the Commissioner notified the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. And the revocation could not happen less than 90 days after that notification. (Note that this is on top of a fairly onerous set of rules governing how the IRS can start and engage in a church audit in the first place.)

A couple things to underline here. First, revoking a church’s exemption for violating the Johnson Amendment is tremendously rare. Like, it has happened once that I’m aware of in the 60+ years that the rule has existed. So even a complete destruction of the rule would barely affect enforcement.

At the same time, this is potentially a more-significant move than the change in enforcement would make it seem. It’s an, if not explicit, at least implicit, blessing on churches campaigning. Moreover, it changes the cost-benefit analysis by significantly reducing the risk of a church losing its exemption. So on the margins, at least, it means that more churches will engage in politicking, and those churches that use the Johnson Amendment as an excuse not to engage in partisan politicking have a significantly smaller backstop for that excuse.

(Btw, if you’re interested in some of the other ways the appropriation bill would regulate IRS activities, I have a post at Surly.)

(h/t on the story to Jack Jenkins.)


  1. Aussie Mormon says:

    So assuming this gets through the senate and gets all the sign-offs necessary, what could be Trump’s next steps in finishing off the removal of the Johnson amendment? (short of just straight-out removing it).

  2. That’s a good question. I’m not honestly entirely sure why the Representatives went with additional administrative burden rather than just prohibiting the IRS from using appropriated funds to enforce the campaigning prohibition. Though honestly, I wasn’t watching the bill closely, so maybe there was some compromise that Representatives needed.

    This comes so close to repeal, though (at least as applied), that I’m not sure what Trump could do short of getting Congress to repeal it. Because the repeal itself would be mostly symbolic, given that it reduces an infinitesimal chance of losing exemption to a zero chance.

  3. Please remember that the Johnson amendment forbids churches and charities from endorsing CANDIDATES. Churches are still allowed to promote and preach about moral issues. Gay marriage is a moral issue and churches are allowed to preach and contribute to organizations that support moral issues. There is no foul when any church speaks out on gay marriage.

  4. Mark, if you read this post or anything else I’ve written on the topic, you’ll realize I’m intimately aware of the contours of this prohibition, as well as the no-substantial-part rule that governs other tax-exempt incursions into lobbying.

    Also, believe it or not, not everything is related to same-sex marriage. Including notably this post.

  5. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    This might mean that more churches will engage in politicking, but it’s interesting to think through how things might change for the LDS Church. Would they have come out against Trump in the last cycle if the prohibition didn’t exist? Will they wade into local politics to endorse candidates? Would there be explicit support for a future Mitt Romney campaign (at any level), or another LDS member running for national office? I’m not convinced the Church would do that. Their policy of not endorsing candidates has worked wonderfully for them to this point. They can distance themselves from the outcomes of elections, and can retain the high ground. Of course, while the Church, as the formal organization, might continue this approach, it might prove nearly impossible to rein in local Bishops and other members in Testimony Meetings.

  6. Both good points. Like you, I think that the Mormon church would continue to avoid explicitly endorsing candidates without the rule in effect, at least until not only the law, but broader norms, had slipped. At the same time, though, without the threat (as light as it is), you lose some control at local levels.

  7. The Church should/will avoid politics because it protects the Church and members from being manipulated by politicians in the sphere of religion. The real danger is not religion in the public square, but political machinations in the sanctuary.

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