ST. LOUIS – Missouri's Republican Senate candidate Josh Hawley opposes a federal provision that bars religious organizations from political endorsements, and his upcoming appearance at a Baptist university may provide a test case for the future of the measure.
Hawley, the state's attorney general, is scheduled to speak Wednesday during chapel at Hannibal-LaGrange University, a 900-student college in Hannibal, 115 miles north of St. Louis.
Hawley is facing incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill in a race that could help determine control of the Senate. She's not invited to chapel, which is mandatory for full-time students and open to the public.
At issue is an Internal Revenue Service provision known as the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and other religious organizations from candidate endorsements. Doing so could cost them their tax-exempt status and a fine.
Hawley favors repealing the amendment. He told conservative pastors in August that he hoped the IRS would "fine a pastor" to create a legal challenge.
During a campaign stop Thursday in St. Charles, Hawley said the amendment "punishes pastors and it punishes churches." He said pastors have delivered some of the most important speeches in American history, citing Martin Luther King Jr. as an example.
"Thank goodness nobody silenced him from the pulpit," Hawley said.
President Donald Trump said last year he wanted to get rid of the Johnson Amendment. A coalition of more than 4,000 faith leaders responded by writing to Congress urging members to retain it. Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the amendment "protects houses of worship from becoming centers of partisan politics."
McCaskill supports the amendment.
HLGU president Anthony Allen was traveling Friday and unavailable for comment, the university said. Earlier this week, Allen told Word & Way, a Baptist publication, he was not concerned that inviting one candidate and not the other would put the university at odds with IRS guidelines.
Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty Executive Director Amanda Tyler said that only once has a religious organization lost its tax-exempt status for a Johnson Amendment violation — after an upstate New York church took out a full-page ad against Bill Clinton days before the 1992 election.
The bigger risk, Tyler said, is allowing partisanship to sow divisions.
Religious organizations "are some of the last community spaces that are not divided along partisan lines," Tyler said. "That's a good thing. We should be doing more to protect those spaces and not be divided based on how we vote."