WASHINGTON – Churches would gain the right to endorse political candidates and still retain their tax-free status under a provision in the House GOP's tax overhaul plan.
The bill would repeal a 63-year-old law credited to former President Lyndon Johnson when he served in the Senate.
Critics warn it could open a loophole that could funnel tax-free money into campaigns. The provision would cost $2 billion over the coming decade, according to congressional scorekeepers.
The Johnson amendment law prohibits tax-exempt charitable organizations such as churches from participating directly or indirectly in any political campaign to support or oppose a candidate. If the IRS determines that a group has violated the law, it can revoke its tax-exempt status.
The law doesn't stop religious groups from weighing in on public policy or organizing in ways that may benefit one side in a campaign.
Democrats have argued that undercutting the law comes too close to mixing church and state. They say religious leaders already have First Amendment rights, just like anyone else. But if they want to get political, they don't have a constitutional right not to pay taxes.
The GOP plan permits political activity by churches so long as there is a minimal cost.
Campaign finance groups warned the change could have far-reaching implications, turning "churches into tools for secret campaign spending," said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United.
Johnson introduced the measure in 1954 when he was a Democratic senator from Texas, driven by his anger over a few nonprofit groups that had attacked him as a communist in a Senate campaign.
The law was signed by a Republican president — Dwight Eisenhower — but Republicans have been criticizing it in recent years and pledged to repeal it as part of the tax overhaul.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order in May discouraging the IRS from enforcing the law.