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If passed, tax reform could let churches endorse political candidates

If passed, tax reform could let churches endorse political candidates

Religious leaders and clergy across the nation — including those in Omaha — are carefully watching what happens to one part of tax legislation that’s making its way through the U.S. House and Senate.

The House version of the bill includes a change to the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 law that prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits such as churches from endorsing political candidates. A stipulation at the end of the 429-page bill would make it legal for ministers to endorse candidates from the pulpit.

The House passed its tax bill on Nov. 16, and a Senate version is still pending.

At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, President Donald Trump said he would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. That vow was aimed at people — mostly conservative Christians — who oppose the 1954 law partly because they believe that it violates First Amendment rights. Trump issued an executive order in May directing the Internal Revenue Service not to penalize clergy members for political speech.

The modification in the tax bill stops short of destroying the Johnson Amendment, which was named after President Lyndon B. Johnson, who introduced it as a senator; churches still would be banned from making financial contributions to campaigns, for instance.

But if the 1954 law were to be fully repealed, it would open the door for heightened political activity in churches and parachurch organizations, said Paul Williams, chairman of the University of Nebraska at Omaha department of religious studies.

“It would increase the likelihood of religious institutions serving as surrogates of political parties,” he said. “As a result, that may lead to further partisan polarization of politics in American society.”

Some Omaha pastors oppose the change.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said the Rev. Rebecca Z. McNeil, associate minister at First Christian Church in Omaha, which is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ — which was, coincidentally, Johnson’s denomination.

“I think it’s important that churches have the freedom to talk about what our theology and the Scriptures teach us about issues, but I don’t think the church should endorse particular candidates,” she said. “There are too many compromises that all candidates have to make to qualify them unequivocally as the Christian candidate or the Jewish candidate.”

McNeil said she thinks that it’s crucial to have a strong wall of separation between church and state to preserve liberties for all, not just for some.

“We are not losing our religious liberty,” she said. “Christians are not being persecuted in this country.”

The concept of “separation between church and state” dates back to Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, who used it in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut in 1802.

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State,” he wrote.

Yet a number of local pastors welcome the modification to the Johnson Amendment.

“From a First Amendment perspective, we should not gag people,” Christ Community Church pastor Mark Ashton told The World-Herald after Trump’s speech in February. “Why should pastors be in a special class (that’s unable) to endorse a candidate?”

Omaha Catholic Archbishop George Lucas reaffirmed last week that regardless of what happens with the Johnson Amendment, candidates will not be endorsed in local parishes, said Deacon Tim McNeil, archdiocese chancellor. (Tim McNeil and Rebecca McNeil are not related.)

“We don’t want to make our places of worship places where we give formal endorsements to political candidates,” Tim McNeil said. “They should be for worshipping God and proclaiming the Gospel.”

He said he thinks that any endorsement process would be difficult, anyway — a candidate who professes pro-life beliefs might be against abortion but for torturing prisoners of war, for instance.

Mike Holloway, assistant pastor of Omaha Bible Church, said he and his fellow pastors also would not make political endorsements from the pulpit. The independent church off Interstate 80 in northwest Omaha is conservative and evangelical, like those Trump was targeting in his comments about the Johnson Amendment repeal.

“We approach it from a different perspective than separation,” Holloway said. “We believe the purpose of the church is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to grow Christians in their faith. Therefore, we do not, from our pulpit or in our teaching, endorse political candidates.”

The church also doesn’t pass out voter guides or address specific moral, political or social issues from the pulpit, he said.

The pastor teaches systematically through the Bible — he has been moving through the Gospel of John each Sunday for the past year. When ethical and moral issues show up in whatever Scriptures they’re studying, they address them — “We want to give emphasis to moral issues as the Scriptures do,” Holloway said.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

elizabeth.freeman@owh.com, 402-444-1267

Omaha World-Herald: Inspired Living

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Betsie covers a little bit of everything for The World-Herald's Living section, including theater, religion and anything else that might need attention. Phone: 402-444-1267.

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