Updated 5:00 pm, Wednesday, April 19, 2017
The president wants to let churches get involved in political campaigns.
The idea threatens a thoughtful balance that’s worked well since the 1950s.
For more than half a century, the United States has had a fair, sensible policy that restricts political activity by churches and charities. Now, President Donald Trump, and some in Congress, want to undo that arrangement in the name of religious freedom.
It’s a cynical political move and a step in the entirely wrong direction. If anything, the government should do more to ensure tax-exempt groups stay out of political campaigns.
Mr. Trump’s idea, which he tossed out in February at the National Prayer Breakfast, is to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, an IRS regulation in place since 1954. It prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, which include churches and charities, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. It is rarely enforced, and it doesn’t stop churches or their leaders from speaking out on issues.
Scrapping the rule may have played well to some of the faith leaders at the breakfast, but Americans overwhelmingly oppose the idea. In a March poll commissioned by Independent Sector, a national group of nonprofits, foundations and corporations, 72 percent of voters favored keeping the Johnson Amendment. That sentiment prevailed among 66 percent of Trump voters, and 67 percent of Republicans, along with 76 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of independents. Other surveys have found most clergy say it should stay, too.
And with good reasons. First, political contributions aren’t tax exempt, but allowing churches and other charities to support candidates would effectively let those donations to be funneled through them be tax free. Second, churches are exempt from disclosure requirements, offering political donors a way around campaign finance regulations designed to inform the public about who is trying to influence elections.
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Third, the rest of society picks up the tab for the taxes churches don’t pay so, in effect, taxpayers would be subsidizing churches’ political activity. That’s a very different thing from public financing of campaigns; in this case only the candidates favored by churches, and the people who donate to them, would benefit.
A far better course would be to strengthen and more vigorously enforce the prohibitions on political activity by nonprofits, particularly 510(c)(4) social welfare organizations that have been openly abusing their tax exempt status. Political involvement is supposed to be incidental to their work, but the IRS has been so cowed by controversies over enforcement, particularly when it came to conservative nonprofits that have been cropping up across the political landscape, that these groups have been politicking with impunity, and we’re all subsidizing it.
That flagrant abuse should bother liberals, conservatives, independents and everyone else. Mr. Trump and Congress should be cracking down on that, not looking for ways to turn churches into political money laundering operations.