In Tax Debate, Gift to Religious Right Could Be Bargaining Chip

Among the changes in the tax bill that passed the House this month is a provision to roll back a 1954 law that bans churches and other nonprofit groups from engaging in political activity.

WASHINGTON — For years, a coalition of well-funded groups on the religious right have waged an uphill battle to repeal a 1954 law that bans churches and other nonprofit groups from engaging in political activity.

Now, those groups are edging toward a once-improbable victory as Republican lawmakers, with the enthusiastic backing of President Trump, prepare to rewrite large swaths of the United States tax code as part of the $1.5 trillion tax package moving through Congress.

Among the changes in the tax bill that passed the House this month is a provision to roll back the 1954 ban, a move that is championed by the religious right, but opposed by thousands of religious and nonprofit leaders, who warn that it could blur the line between charity and politics.

The change could turn churches into a well-funded political force, with donors diverting as much as $1.7 billion each year from traditional political committees to churches and other nonprofit groups that could legally engage in partisan politics for the first time, according to an estimate by the nonpartisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.

The Senate will begin voting as early as Wednesday on its own version of the sweeping tax rewrite, which the leaves the ban untouched, and differs in other key ways from the House version. The Senate bill has yet to garner enough support from Republicans to pass along party lines, with Republican senators raising concerns about the bill’s cost and approach, including how small businesses are treated and the elimination of the Affordable Care Act requirement that most Americans have health insurance or pay a penalty.

Among those on the fence are Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, who has expressed concerns about the bill’s impact on the budget deficit but favors ending the 1954 ban. In a possible sign of the horse trading to come to try to secure votes, a spokesman for Mr. Lankford said on Sunday that the senator was working to insert language into the Senate bill to roll back the ban, and believed it had a good chance of being included.

If the bill passes the Senate, lawmakers will still need to resolve key differences between the House and Senate bills, including whether to make the tax cuts for individuals permanent, as the House bill does, or temporary, as in the Senate legislation. Leaders will also need to decide what to do about popular tax breaks, like the mortgage interest and state and local tax deductions, which each bill treats differently.

With time running out for Republicans to deliver a major legislative victory after nearly a year of stalemate on the party’s top agenda items, lawmakers appear poised to agree to last-minute changes and tweaks to try to ensure the bill’s passage so it can be delivered to President Trump by Christmas. Tax bill negotiations are expected to kick into high gear on Monday, as lawmakers return to Washington with just a handful of legislative days left and big issues to contend with, including the need to pass a funding measure to keep the government open beyond Dec. 8 and action to protect the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.

The change in the House bill could turn churches into a well-funded political force, with donors diverting as much as $1.7 billion each year from traditional political committees to churches and other nonprofit groups that could engage in partisan politics for the first time.

The need for a legislative victory is giving comfort to those on the religious right that the final bill sent to the president will include the House language, which was drafted with significant input from evangelical groups.

The sudden movement toward their goal appears to trace back to a January 2016 meeting that Mr. Trump, then a presidential candidate, had convened at his Trump Tower office in Manhattan with evangelical leaders he was courting.

That meeting helped lead to a campaign pledge by Mr. Trump to repeal the ban, known as the Johnson Amendment, and set the stage for its inclusion in the tax code overhaul that passed the House.

Critics warn that the change could dramatically increase untraceable political spending and lead to the creation of “sham churches” to take advantage of the new avenue for political spending, which — unlike donations to candidates, “super PACs” and party committees — would allow donors to deduct contributions.

Thousands of religious leaders, as well as groups and denominations like the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, say rolling back the Johnson Amendment would be the biggest threat to the stability and mission of their organizations in a generation. Charities and…

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