Separation of church and state is a foundational tenet of our democracy. Indeed many early colonists made the perilous journey to the New World to escape religious persecution. So important to our earliest citizens was the concept of religious freedom that it is the first issue addressed in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … ”
The Internal Revenue Code of 1954 included a provision exempting churches and other non-profits from taxes, provided that the nonprofit does not participate in political campaigns. This provision is known as The Johnson Amendment, named for the senator who proposed it, Lyndon B. Johnson. Lawmakers enacted this amendment to the tax code without debate and thus considered it uncontroversial. The provision remained undisputed when it became a part of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 under President Reagan.
Last year during the National Prayer Breakfast President Trump promised to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, attempting to bear out one of his campaign promises. The tax overhaul bill passed last December originally contained language to overturn the Johnson Amendment. Fortunately at the last minute legislators removed this stipulation.
The Johnson Amendment is once again facing reversal, this time as a rider to the spending bill Congress must pass to fund the government. Bill riders are provisions attached to unrelated legislation; riders can thus pass without separate vote or debate. “Destroying” the Johnson Amendment is tantamount to further demolishing campaign finance rules. Do we want, need, or benefit from more Dark Money influencing our elections? How will our country benefit by having our religious institutions engaging in political activity? Church and state will no longer be separate institutions in the United States. Democracy will find itself in a more ragged state than it is today, in desperate need of monumental repair.