WASHINGTON -- Not only would houses of worship be able to more actively promote political candidates, but so would nonprofit groups under a section inserted into the House tax bill an hour before it was due for a key vote.
The last-minute change affecting the so-called Johnson amendment was tucked into a "manager's amendment" to the GOP tax plan by House Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady, R-Texas. The House will vote on the entire tax plan next week. It's expected to pass easily.
The change pleased faith-based conservatives and infuriated campaign finance reformers and groups advocating separation of church and state.
"This would allow churches to become political organizations, said Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution.
Faith-based groups had complained that Brady's initial attempt to alter the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which bars churches and 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups from supporting or opposing political candidates, didn't go far enough and was too narrow because it didn't apply to tax-exempt nonprofit groups such as charities.
Brady's new language allows the nonprofit organizations to engage in political activities.
Under current Internal Revenue Service regulations, 501(c)(3) organizations must serve a public purpose, cannot benefit private interests, and are limited in the amount of political activity and lobbying they can do.
"We think it's important to be able to protect churches and pastors in the ability to endorse candidates, but we also think it's a matter of equity and fairness to allow all nonprofits to have free speech protections," said David Christensen, Family Research Council vice president of government affairs. "They should be able to endorse, or not, as they see fit without the IRS threatening to punish them."
Advocates for the separation of church, as well as state and campaign finance watchdog groups, were livid.
They called the changes payback to faith-based organizations and voters who supported Donald Trump for president.