Federal lawmakers push to allow politics in the pulpit

Sightings of politicians in churches and other places of religious worship is not uncommon around the nation, and while many Americans might have been familiar with the issue, few had probably ever heard the term 'Johnson Amendment' until President Donald Trump spoke about it at his first National Prayer Breakfast a week ago.

"I will get rid of, and totally destroy, the Johnson Amendment," Trump said, addressing the crowd.

The 'Johnson Amendment' refers to a U.S. tax code provision that prohibits nonprofit organizations with 501(c)(3) tax exemptions -- which includes many places of worship -- from participating in political activity, at risk of losing that tax exempt status. The provision was named after the lawmaker who championed it back in the 1950s, then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson.

Last week, lawmakers in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate re-introduced legislation to 'fix' the 'Johnson Amendment.'

"If you work for a for-profit organization, you have free speech," Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, told Sinclair . "If you work for a nonprofit organization, you don’t have free speech."

Lankford says his bill is about allowing that free speech, but opponents are pushing back.

"I don’t want to politicize Sunday mornings and I don’t want to see churches generally politicized," Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Lutheran, told Sinclair.

It turns out, many Americans agree with Brown's stance, according to a recent poll released by the Pew Research Center.

Nearly half of those surveyed -- 49 percent -- say leave politics out of places of worship, to 47 percent who say leave it in.

When it comes to endorsing specific candidates, the contrast is much wider with 66 percent saying places of worship should not endorse, compared to 29 percent who say there should be endorsements.

Lankford points out that his bill does not force any nonprofit organization to preach politics.

"I’ve had some folks who say, 'Well our nonprofit organization or our church doesn’t want to talk about politics.' Okay, you don’t have to," Lankford said, adding that the bill is more about allowing those who do want to talk politics to be free from government interference.

"When the federal government is stepping in saying we’re going to send the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) in, sit in the back pew of your church, and make sure you don’t talk about anything in politics, we’re going to monitor your speech, that is inherently un-American," according to Lankford.

Opponents to Lankford's 'fix' also say that the issue isn't just speech, but money -- specifically campaign contributions.

"I don’t want to see my Lutheran church or the Catholic Church or the Baptist Church or Jewish temple engaged in endorsements or giving campaign contributions and all of that," Brown pointed out.

Lankford agrees, and says his bill would still not allow places of worship and other 501(c)(3) nonprofits to participate financially in political campaigns while keeping their tax-exempt status.

Still, Brown and others say they believe the law isn't broken and so there's no need to 'fix' it.

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