Back in May, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that neutered the long-standing ban on religious organizations engaging in politics — raising fears among good government advocates that the change could create yet another way for dark money to flow into elections. Trump also called on Congress to officially repeal the ban.
Looks like Congress was listening.
Buried deep in the tax plan released Thursday by House Republicans is a provision that would scrap the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 law that bars churches and other charities from conducting partisan political activities.
Scrapping the ban has been a priority for the conservative religious leaders who backed Trump’s campaign. But plenty of their non-conservative counterparts are opposed to repeal, worrying that it could thrust them against their will into partisan politics.
“Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines,” thousands of local faith leaders told Congress in a letter sent in August. “The prophetic role of faith communities necessitates that we retain our independent voice.”
And opponents of big money in politics raise perhaps an even graver concern. They say repealing the Johnson Amendment would create a damaging loophole in campaign finance law, allowing donors to keep their identities secret by shifting many of their political activities to charities, which aren’t required to report their donors. As a bonus, they could even get a tax deduction for it.
As Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center put it back in May to The Daily Democracy: “For example, Robert Mercer could write a large check to a church with the understanding that the church would then sponsor political attack ads in advance of the 2018 elections.”
In sum, the change would mean “an even more lopsided influence for outside money in American elections than already exists under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling,” the watchdog group Public Citizen explains online. “It would fundamentally alter the legal separation between politics and religion, opening another loophole for undisclosed donors to back political campaigns.”