Efforts to lift legal constraints on the policial speech of churches and other nonprofits as part of the tax overhaul were blocked Thursday by a ruling from the Senate parliamentarian.
The House version of the tax legislation had included a provision that would have eliminated a rule known as the Johnson Amendment that bars churches and tax-exempt nonprofits from advocating for candidates or taking partisan political positions. Conservatives have long said that the rule goes too far in restricting the free speech of religious leaders and institutions, creating a “chilling effect” that discourages speech by churches that fear the loss of tax-exempt status for overstepping unclear lines separating permitted and forbidden political speech.
Democrats and liberal-leaning nonprofits objected to rolling-back the Johnson Rule, while conservatives generally supported it. Unable to win enough votes to block the measure, Democrats argued that including the repeal would violate the Byrd test. The Senate parliamentarian sided with Democrats Thursday, ruling that including a repeal of the Johnson amendment would require 60 votes in the Senate rather than a bare majority.
The Johnson amendment was enacted in 1954 and named for Lyndon Johnson. It allows the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the tax-exempt status of a church or charity that it finds has crossed the line into endorsing political candidates, campaigning in elections, or otherwise directly participating in political activities. Churches have been allowed to engage in voter registration drives.
Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma told the Wall Street Journal he is disappointed that the language will be cut from the final bill.
“The federal government and the IRS should never have the ability through our tax code to limit free speech,” Lankford told the WSJ.