SHJ Calls for the Unaltered Retention of the Johnson Amendment
The Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ) vigorously supports the Johnson Amendment as fundamental to American democracy and the separation of church and state. The Johnson Amendment prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax-exempt organizations, including churches and synagogues, 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.”
Enacted in 1954 under President Eisenhower, the Johnson Amendment states that nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations cannot endorse specific candidates, collect contributions on behalf of political campaigns, or make any statement for or against a particular candidate. Under current law, nonprofits including churches can – and often do – educate the public on a myriad of social and political issues and even advocate positions on such specific issues. The crux of the current statutory limitation in the Johnson Amendment is restricting the support of specific candidates while allowing these organizations the freedom to take positions on issues.
The underlying purpose of the Johnson Amendment is critical to secular democracy. If tax-exempt religious entities were allowed to participate in political campaigns and endorse specific candidates, then a church, mosque, or synagogue with a particular position could attract individual contributors looking for tax-deductible channels to support or oppose candidates. Further, a wealthy donor could promise a sizeable donation but only on the condition that the non-profit or church endorsed a specific candidate.
As the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board wrote in support of the Johnson Amendment, “The underlying principle is that when the taxpayers provide a financial benefit [tax exemption] to charitable organizations (including religious organizations), they [taxpayers] shouldn’t be asked to subsidize political views with which they might disagree.”Furthermore, the lure of tax deductible money could result in the creation of new “religious” charities whose real purpose is political. While the First Amendment protects political speech, there is no fundamental right to tax preferred political speech. In fact, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of Americans think clergy should not endorse political candidates.
Despite these compelling reasons for the Johnson Amendment, some conservative organizations that prefer an enhanced role for religion “in the public square” have called for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, arguing that it censors their right to political speech in general. The current president has repeatedly expressed frustration about churches being restricted from endorsing political candidates such as himself. Not surprisingly, at the February 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, the president stated that he wants “to totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.” In essence, the president would like religious leaders to be able to officially endorse specific political candidates without any adverse tax implications posed by the Johnson Amendment. He has also advocated selective enforcement of the Johnson Amendment by only focusing on the fact that churches are prevented from electioneering without acknowledging that secular nonprofits are also prevented.
As Secular Humanistic Jews, we believe the current ban on electioneering from the pulpit is central to the essential Constitutional principle of separation of church and state. The Constitution specifically designed our democratic government to be secular because only secular democracies allow freedom for a range of religious and other beliefs. Allowing religious organizations to endorse candidates – as opposed to voicing positions on issues, which they are entirely free to do – allows religion to intrude improperly into our Constitutionally-mandated secular governance, and undermines a core tenet of our functioning democracy. The SHJ therefore supports the continued prohibition of tax-exempt non-profit organizations from endorsing political candidates. The prohibition applies to both religious and secular non-profits, including the SHJ itself. We repudiate any calls for selective enforcement of this federal law, or for its repeal.
— May 2017