When most people think of Lyndon Johnson, they recall a former U.S. president who came into office when his predecessor, John Kennedy, was assassinated. What they don’t often realize is that as a U.S. senator, LBJ championed a bill ensuring that church money would be kept out of politics. Known as the Johnson Amendment, it was passed in 1954 and didn’t ruffle any feathers at the time. That’s all changed, however, and the amendment is now at risk of being scaled back to the point where churches and other tax-exempt non-profit organizations will essentially be given free rein to pour campaign donations to the political causes and candidates of their choice. End Citizens United, which was established to overturn the horrendous Citizens United decision of 2010, has now set its sights on protecting the Johnson Amendment.
In a press release issued on November 2, 2017, End Citizens United urged the powers that be to reject the Johnson amendment repeal efforts, which have been tucked into a massive tax reform bill in a clear attempt to piggyback this brazen attempt at further rigging the system in favor of big money. Due to all of the chaos of the current administration, however–including the ongoing investigation into treasonous activities with Russia–the public at large is overwhelmingly in the dark about what is happening.
The sad truth, however, is that when the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United v. FEC in 2010–stripping away the majority of the regulations that have been in place to keep political campaign fundraising fair–it was an even bigger disaster. Still, the public outcry was surprisingly mild. To counteract this disastrous decision, End Citizens United was established. The organization primarily works to support candidates who are committed to overturning Citizens United and to further improving campaign finance laws. In the wake of these attempts to repeal the Johnson Amendment, however, the organization is mobilizing to keep it from happening.
After being viciously attacked by non-profit organizations whose ads claimed that he was a communist, Lyndon Johnson, then a U.S. senator, cited the unfairness of tax-exEnd Citizens United Fights to Save the Johnson Amendmentempt organizations being able to use tax-exempt funds to support or oppose political candidates. As a result, the Johnson Amendment was born, and it quickly went into law. Although it is a major issue these days, it didn’t make much of a splash back when it was passed into law. At the time, public sentiment was that the separation of church and state existed for good reason, so the amendment simply reinforced that concept.
Back in September, Republicans tried to do away with the Johnson Amendment by tacking on a repeal of it to the House Financial Services appropriation bill. When that failed, they added language to the new spending bill that retains the amendment but specifically exempts religious organizations from official oversight. This is on top of the many attempts that have already been made to weaken the power of the amendment, including an executive order that was signed by Trump back in May that discouraged the IRS from enforcing the act.
With the 2010 Citizens United decision, SCOTUS basically said that the First Amendment right to freedom of speech doesn’t just apply to individuals but to corporations and other entities too. This decision also chose to interpret political donations as a form of free speech. With these neat little tricks, the decision did away with protections that have long prevented anonymous sources from funneling “dark money” to Super PACs and the like. The 2012 election, the first after the decision, was relatively stable. The 2016 election, of course, saw the election of Trump, so it is safe to say that the effects of Citizens United are already being seen.
All too often, people are puzzled about why religious organizations are forbidden from participating in political fundraising and the like. Consider this: The 2016 election, which was the most expensive in U.S. history, clocked in a cost of about $6.5 billion. Meanwhile, in the year 2015 alone, Americans donated more than $119 billion to religious organizations. Should the Johnson Amendment be repealed or stripped of its most crucial powers, billions of more dollars in funding could easily stream into political efforts–and those who donated the money in the first place may mistakenly think that it’s being used for local church activities.
For religious organizations and other 501(c)(3) non-profits to maintain their tax-exempt status, they must refrain from participating in political campaigning for or against all candidates. The solution for such organizations that wish to engage in such activities is simple: lose the tax-exempt status. Already, some churches and other organizations have taken steps to flout the law. Still, more than 100 religious organizations understand the importance of the Johnson Amendment and are standing with End Citizens United to try and protect it.
Hearing about organizations that lose their tax-exempt status for violating the Johnson Amendment is pretty rare, and it’s become rarer still in recent years. Still, the existence of the law naturally prevents most organizations from doing so. If it goes away, the floodgates will truly open. As Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United, noted, “The House Republican’s tax plan includes the terrible decision to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which can turn churches into tools for secret campaign spending.” In addition to making it possible for tax-exempt monies to go directly to political campaigns, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment allows donors to enjoy tax deductions for doing so.
So far, the Republicans have failed in their attempts to strip away the most powerful aspects of the Johnson Amendment. Now, it is up to groups like End Citizens United to raise awareness and to hopefully bring new candidates into office who understand the importance of campaign finance laws. Should the repeal of this amendment come to pass, it is going to be that much more difficult to dig out from under this mess. With this in mind, End Citizens United will continue its grassroots efforts to protect democracy from corporations and dark money for the foreseeable future.