Commentary: WASHINGTON – Congressman Beto O’Rourke (TX-16) released a letter on Tuesday morning with nearly 100 of his fellow representatives signing on to urge the House Committee on Ways and Means – the chief tax-writing committee – to protect the Johnson amendment and oppose President Trump’s call to diminish the separation of church and state. The Congressional effort, led by Rep. O’Rourke, Rep. James Clyburn (SC-06), Rep. John Lewis (GA-05) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23), urges the Committee and Speaker Paul Ryan (WI-01) to oppose proposals that could politicize charitable, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations including houses of worship. Rep. O’Rourke’s letter specifically urges the continued prohibition of tax-exempt organizations known as 501(c)(3)s from endorsing, opposing or contributing to candidates.
“We don’t need more money in politics,” said Rep. O’Rourke, the co-chair of the Congressional Term Limits Caucus and one of only a handful of incumbents running in 2016 to keep no PAC contributions. “The Johnson amendment not only ensures a separation of church and state, but it ensures our Democracy can be powered by people not PACs.”
The letter currently has 93 signers and is backed by more than two dozen groups including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Interfaith Alliance, Jewish Federations of North America, National Council of Nonprofits and others. In August, more than 4,000 faith leaders sent a letter to all Members of Congress strongly opposing any effort to weaken or repeal the Johnson Amendment. And more than 5,500 organizations from all 50 states signed on to a letter expressing opposition to any changes whatsoever to the amendment.
“It is already a struggle to keep our places of worship safe places for all voices to pursue justice and see the divine within each individual,” said Rabbi Brian Zimmerman, Reform Judaism, of Fort Worth, Tex. “Taking down the barriers that keep our congregations non-partisan will remove one more place in which individuals can seek refuge from a very divided country.”
Rabbi Zimmerman was one of the 369 faith leaders in Texas alone to join Rep. O’Rourke in calling on Congress to keep the Johnson Amendment. Seven of these faith leaders specifically represent congregations in El Paso, Tex. Additionally, hundreds of organizations in Texas and four groups from El Paso joined the 5,500 across the country in signing on to a second letter.
Since 1954, the Johnson Amendment has ensured that tax-exempt organizations, including charitable nonprofits, houses of worship and foundations do not endorse or oppose political candidates. It protects the right of these organizations to discuss political and social issues while, at the same time, ensuring they are not pressured by political candidates, campaigns and donors to take a side in divisive partisan elections.
During his campaign for the presidency, Trump often targeted the Johnson Amendment and pledged to repeal it once it office. Because the amendment is law, repealing it would take an act of Congress. The White House has since encouraged Congress to include a repeal of the Johnson Amendment in the upcoming tax bill.