The Johnson Amendment was made part of the U.S. Tax Code in 1954 and prohibited tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Then-Senator Lyndon Johnson introduced it after being falsely attacked as a communist by charitable organizations during a Senate campaign, but a Republican Congress and President, Dwight Eisenhower, enacted it.
The amendment prohibits all tax-exempt charitable organizations including churches from making donations to campaigns or paying for public statements explicitly for or against a candidate. The amendment was not focused on religious groups, but it covered them. It did not stop religious groups from weighing in on public policy or from organizing to support a candidate in a campaign but it limited economic contributions.
Fox News reported that Mr. Trump was “moving on a campaign promise” and would “work for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.” Actually, Mr. Trump promised religious leaders that he would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Mr. Trump has colorful ways to describe how he can “grab” attention but why the promise to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment? Was he pandering to a group of citizens without any consideration of the effect the words and promises could have on other groups?
No one identified a problem with freedom of speech or freedom of religion due to the amendment. The First Amendment ensures a separation between religion and state by prohibiting the establishment of any religion.
The Johnson Amendment does not constrain the freedom of religious groups except when they want to spend money collected under the benefit of a tax-free status for the benefit or to the detriment of a particular candidate. A repeal of the Johnson Amendment will just give another class of organizations freedom to spend money on politicians in an attempt to curry favor and compromise independence.
Mr. Trump contended, “Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but … under threat all around us [which] … is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
No threat was identified to freedom of speech or freedom of religion. Why did Mr. Trump make this into a news item? Why did Fox News backpedal on the language actually used by the president?
This may be mere misdirection so that the people pay less attention to how Mr. Trump has alienated our allies and strengthened the propaganda of our enemies around the world in his first two weeks in office.
It may be that Mr. Trump is preparing us for a campaign to enable corporations “to speak freely and without fear of retribution” like religious groups with their billions. He may soon compare corporate and religious groups’ “free speech” rights while explaining why campaign finance reform is unconstitutional and unfair to important citizens like ExxonMobil who speak through lobbyists and lawyers.
South Dakota is experiencing a free speech controversy since its citizens passed a proposition to impose campaign finance reform and ethical rules on their elected “representatives.”
The measure called for state funds to be used by political candidates and for lobbyist gifts to lawmakers to be limited to $100 annually. It provides for an independent commission to ensure against violation of state ethics laws. The people spoke freely and their “representatives” basically told them to shut up.
Republican lawmakers declared the proposition unconstitutional and stayed the measure with a lawsuit while they scurried to enfeeble the measure by replacing it with an “emergency” bill that they created.
The state legislature declared a state of emergency so they could ignore the measure while passing the “emergency” bill, which when signed will take effect immediately and cannot be referred back to the people because of its “emergency” nature. The lawmakers who the people believed needed regulation successfully undermined the efforts of the people to have them regulated.
Senator Lance Russell, one of the few Republicans opposed to this “emergency” bill, correctly described it as the most “repugnant display of raw partisan political power” that he had ever seen.
Citizens in South Dakota complain that they are disenfranchised and unrepresented by their elected representatives. The votes of the people were overwhelmed by the finances and contributions and secrecy afforded by the status quo under our campaign finance laws.
We must demand that Mr. Trump, who speaks fervently about removing spending regulation from groups so they can lobby and influence our political system, commit to moving campaign finance reform in the right direction.