Tax Reform Bill Exposes the Religious Right’s Tactics and the Trump Administration’s Priorities

Washington, DC — The Secular Coalition for America released the following statement in response to President Trump signing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1).

“The religious right and their allies in Congress tried to hijack the tax reform bill and use it as a vehicle to advance their policy priorities,” said Larry T. Decker, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America. “We’re grateful that, despite their best efforts, most of their agenda items were removed from the bill at the eleventh hour. Today is a victory, albeit a temporary one, for all those who cherish the wall of separation between church and state.”

One provision blocked by the Senate Parliamentarian from being included in the final version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act would have severely weakened the Johnson Amendment by allowing houses of worship and nonprofits to endorse political candidates. Weakening the Johnson Amendment would allow religious organizations to operate like Super PACs by using their anonymous, tax-deductible donations to support political candidates.

“The Johnson Amendment is a common-sense safeguard that enjoys widespread support from faith groups, the nonprofit community, the secular community and a majority of all Americans,” said Decker. “The only reason to repeal this long-standing statute would be to appease a tiny but vocal minority of religious leaders who want to engage in partisan electioneering at the taxpayer’s expense. If the Trump Administration and some Members of Congress were not beholden to this zealous fringe, they could listen to the overwhelming majority of Americans who are urging them to leave the Johnson Amendment intact.”

Another provision contained in early House and Senate versions of the bill would have codified anti-choice fetal personhood language into law. The proposal would have allowed a fetus, referred to in the bill as an “unborn child”, to qualify as a designated beneficiary for 529 college saving plans. Similarly, this section was blocked from inclusion in the final version of the bill by the Senate Parliamentarian.

“The wording of this provision reveals its true purpose: to write the personal beliefs of anti-choice Members of Congress into law,” said Decker. “Injecting this ‘fetal personhood’ language into tax reform legislation is nothing but an underhanded effort to set a precedent that would allow lawmakers to subvert women’s reproductive rights and codify religious dogma.

However, one expansion to 529 college savings plans that was included in the final version of the bill will allow the plans to be used to pay for private religious schools. The new policy will allow families to funnel private school tuition payments through 529 accounts, avoiding taxes that would be used to fund public schools.

“Of course parents have the right to send their children to a religious school, but not on the taxpayers’ dime,” said Decker. “The government has no business providing special tax breaks for parents who choose to send their child to a religious school. This expansion of the 529 savings program will siphon taxpayer dollars away from inclusive and secular public schools to exclusive private religious schools.”

“The process that led to the passage of this bill should serve as a cautionary tale about the tactics of the religious right,” said Decker. “The lawmakers who fight the religious right’s crusade will look for any opportunity to advance their agenda. Through hidden clauses and last-minute amendments, some Members of Congress hoped they could enact these radical policies in the dark. The Secular Coalition for America won’t allow this to happen. We will remain vigilant and continue our work shining a light on their efforts. Sunlight and secular advocacy is the best disinfectant for theocracy.”