Thursday, June 27, 2019
President Trump talked about the so called "Johnson Amendment" again the other day. The Johnson Amendment, as probably most of the readers of this blog know, is the language contained in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code that prohibits a charity hoping to maintain its status as exempt from federal income tax from intervening in any political campaign. I say so called as it was not called that on its entry to the Code, though this article does suggest it was LBJ who was the author of the language added to the Code in 1954.
The President, speaking before the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington stated: “Our pastors, our ministers, our priests, our rabbis . . . [are] allowed to speak again . . . allowed to talk without having to lose your tax exemption, your tax status, and being punished for speaking." He then apparently jokingly cautioned that if a pastor spoke against him “we’ll bring back that Johnson Amendment so fast,” the president said to laughter, adding, “I’m only kidding.”
President Trump signed an executive order back in May. The law of course is still found within section 501(c)(3) and thus is a duly enforceable law. In my opinion, the executive order did not do anything to change the actual state of affairs of the meaning of the law or its interaction with other laws, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or constitutional rights. If anything, the current state of the law should work to protect those he jokingly threatened to use the state of the law against.
The news article I cite to above unfortunately wrongly states the following: "The president has not undone the law, like he sometimes claims he has, but rather told the Treasury Department it can enforce at its own discretion — leaving the possibility that the Trump administration could only penalize churches that oppose the president."
Although the President has not undone the law, as the article correctly states, I say wrongly in two senses: (1) he has not told the Treasury Department that it can enforce at its own discretion - he only directs Treasury to apply the law with due regard to allowing individuals and organizations to speak when speaking from a religious perspective "where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign", and (2) it would be unlawful for the administration to penalize churches that oppose the president, and his executive order did not create that possibility of such unlawful action. If you have interest in more detail on the (obvious) legal problems associated with (2), I wrote about the legal reasons why it would be unlawful for the IRS to unequally enforce the law in such a way in a longer scholarly article here considering the claims that the IRS violated conservative organizations rights when it specifically used names of groups like the Tea Party in managing its application system.