Quick Update on Politicking at Church

On Monday, I wrote about a couple ways that the House tax bill might impact Mormons. Well, today Kevin Brady, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, introduced an amendment to that bill. One of those ways was by carving out a small exception to the so-called Johnson Amendment for churches.[fn1] There was a lot of discussion swirling around over whether eliminating it only for churches would violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Well, apparently Brady didn’t want to take that risk. His amendment expands the exemption to all tax-exempt organizations.

A couple quick thoughts on the change. First, while it undoubtedly meets the constitutional barrier now, expanding the exemption adds really significant complexity. See, with the original incarnation of the bill, the exemption applied only to a “homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.” Now it applies to any statement, provided that statement is in the organization’s ordinary course and doesn’t cause more than de minimis additional cost.

The thing is, though, most tax-exempt organizations don’t have general meetings where people congregate and where there is a presentation that could naturally veer into the political. So does this lack of meetings mean, in effect, that it still only applies to churches and church-like organizations? Or does it vastly expand the scope of permissible endorsements? (I suspect it’s the second.)

Second, note the weird timing. Under this amendment, the partial repeal of the Johnson Amendment doesn’t happen until 2019. And it comes back in full force in 2024. Why? Probably to keep its projected cost the same as it was when the prohibition was only lifted for churches.

Will this happen? Who knows—the Senate is supposed to release its tax bill sometime this afternoon, and I have no idea whether the Senate has any interest in repealing the Johnson Amendment. I also don’t know how the bill—including this provision—will fare once the full force of lobbying happens. Because not all churches are in favor of repealing the Johnson Amendment. Sure, there are a few vociferous supporters—often, though not exclusively, conservative Evangelical pastors—but there are a number of pastors who like the protection it offers from pressure to engage in politicking. So we’ll have to see what ultimately happens.

[fn1] “Johnson Amendment” is the stupid name that people use for the prohibition on tax-exempt entities supporting or opposing candidates for office.


  1. Aussie Mormon says:

    A couple of thoughts:
    1) What is the effect of removing the 508c1a organisations from this section?

    2) Looking at the section that has been removed, the pre-amendment bill differentiates between the statement itself and preparing the statement. The amended bill now just talks about the statement itself so the “ordinary course” bit will be the woolly bit I think. How much of a talk/statement would have to be political for it to no-longer be the ordinary course?
    Take October general conference. These occur every year, and so every 4th one would align with a US federal election. So the conference itself would be in the ordinary course, but what about the talks.
    Let’s assume that Salt Lake Tribune columnist (and mormon) Robert Kirby was running for president, and had backing of the launching-bowling-balls-into-orbit party, which has somehow become a major national party.
    An apostle giving a whole talk on how awesome Kirby is and why everyone should vote for him, would definitely seem out of the ordinary course to me (given we are a church not a campaign team, and our stance on political neutrality).
    However what about if Kirby was asked to give a talk? What if he was asked to give a talk, and some of the content was in common with his political campaign (most likely the old man, and his granddaughters).
    What if an apostle was giving a talk, and overtly used one of Kirby’s campaign stories as an example?
    For both you could argue that conference talks with personal life examples are the normal course for conference talks.
    You could also argue that it’s not in the normal course for a political candidate to be giving general conference talks, and so would fall foul of the amended law.

  2. “What if an apostle was giving a talk, and overtly used one of Kirby’s campaign stories as an example?”

    I seem to remember a 70 doing this in General Conference with Ben Carson (not a Mormon)…

  3. Confidential says:
  4. Appreciate these explanatory posts, Sam. I’m with the pastors who appreciate the protection from pressure to engage in politicking. In our Mormon congregations, I don’t see political involvement going so well.

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