Heretic on the Hill: Dropping a Dime on Campaigning in Churches

Church and state are becoming less and less separate in churches. Churches, other faith-based institutions, and in fact all nonprofit organizations are prohibited from participating in most political campaign activities but many churches are crossing the line or just ignoring this prohibition. The consequence should be losing their nonprofit status but the IRS has been notably lax in enforcing what is known as the Johnson Amendment. Nonprofits are supposed to be engaged in activities that somehow promote the greater good and as an incentive for doing so, they do not pay taxes.


The Johnson Amendment was added to the tax code in 1954 by Senator Lyndon Johnson because several secular nonprofits were campaigning against him and other legislators. The amendment passed without debate or a voice vote. Ever since, church and nonprofit officials have been prohibited from endorsing or opposing political candidates. They are, however, permitted to engage in nonpartisan political activities such as distributing voter guides and conducting get-out-the-vote drives. They can even host candidate debates as long as all candidates are treated equally.  Nonprofits can also educate, and to a limited degree, advocate on issues. Basically it is just the endorsement of candidates, or opposition to them, that can’t happen.  


But what if it does? What if a pastor says,You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation…. You cannot be a Democrat and a Christian. You cannot.” What if a church shows a video in which a Democratic official urges people to support a Democratic candidate for governor? These seem like clear violations. The IRS, however, is not known for cracking down on churches. First, the IRS budget has been cut 20 percent since 2010. They have to prioritize and lots of people actually owe them money. Second, some pastors claim that any government interference in what they say violates their freedom of religion, and they literally challenge the IRS to take them on.  We cannot say the IRS never investigates, as shown in this story about a church/thrift shop whose pastor is a Kansas state senator. 


What if you wanted to dime out a church where you hear about or read about a Johnson Amendment violation? When you think of the IRS, you probably think of the many complicated tax forms and schedules you have to fill out with pages of inscrutable instructions about what goes on every line. It would not surprise you that there is a form for turning in a church or faith-based institution, but Form 13909 could not be simpler. You’re going to wonder why they can’t all be like this.  One page, fill out six sections, and mail it in. That’s it.


You do want to make sure you’re squealing on someone for an actual Johnson violation instead of something that is technically allowed. Because the rules are complicated, you should probably look at the IRS’s Charities, Churches, and Politics page and follow their links just to be sure you have a case. This Congressional Research Service report is helpful too.


The Secular Coalition for America is going about this another way: we are asking Congress to tell the IRS to get busy on enforcing the Johnson Amendment. We have asked Members of Congress to use the 2023 appropriations bill that funds the IRS to include extra money for enforcement and to tell the IRS to make this a priority. Even a small increase in enforcement would tell the blatant violators that they should consider what it would be like without their tax exemption if they keep campaigning in their houses of worship.


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