Campaign finance watchdogs said a new executive order on religious liberty could transform churches into conduits of secretive political money.
President Donald Trump signed the order Thursday that would allow religious organizations to engage more in elections without fear of losing their tax exemption.
He said it directs the IRS not to enforce the so-called Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and other charities from endorsing specific candidates. Under that rule, Trump said, “if a pastor, priest or imam speaks about issues of public or political importance, they are threatened with the loss of their tax exempt status — a crippling financial punishment.”
But the policy change also may offer a new and covert route for political money.
“Dark-money operators are very creative,” said Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy for Issue One, a bipartisan campaign finance overhaul group.
Churches and other religious charities that do not disclose their donors “could act as a laundromat to clean the actual source of that money,” McGehee added. “I know a lot of this is posed in terms of religious freedom and that government should not be censoring that. Unfortunately, like many things, that obfuscates the political reality, which is creating this potential for a new kind of dark money.”
Some religious groups and those who seek to deregulate the campaign finance system praised the idea behind the order.
James Bopp Jr., a well-known conservative lawyer, said he opposes the Johnson Amendment because it offers the IRS overly loose standards that can give the government an excuse to target certain groups for their political agenda.
“Those kind of vague standards allow arbitrary enforcement and political viewpoint discrimination,” said Bopp, who favors campaign finance deregulation.
Bopp noted that under the 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which helped pave the way for super PACs, labor unions and corporations may engage in expanded political speech.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me to have charitable organizations and organizations that are established to pursue the public interest be prohibited from speaking out about candidates, when special interests are allowed to do it,” Bopp said. “I would rather hear from NARAL or the National Right to Life than Exxon Mobil. I’d be even more interested in my pastor because he is not pursuing worldly interests.”
Public Citizen, a liberal group that favors strict campaign finance limits, said it planned to challenge the new executive order in court.
“This executive order may go down in history as the Citizens United of church/state separation in the context of political spending,” said the group's president, Robert Weissman. “We are quickly reviewing the terms of the executive order, which we believe is not legally valid, and plan promptly to sue to block its implementation.”
Some opponents of the measure attacked it on the grounds that the administration should not seek to overturn existing law by executive order. Lawmakers have introduced similar measures including a bill by House Majority Whip Steve Scaliseof Louisiana.
The new order “will bestow churches with unprecedented political power,” said Casey Brescia, a spokesman for the Secular Coalition. “Politicians could funnel untold sums of money into churches, and it would all be completely untraceable.”
Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a professor at Notre Dame Law School who has studied the matter, said the Thursday executive order does not actually resolve anything with the Johnson Amendment.
“It leaves interpreting and enforcing that provision with Treasury, and so the IRS, where it has always been and does not require them to do anything differently moving forward,” he said.
The idea, though, that churches can more freely wade into politics, Mayer said, may prompt candidates to aggressively seek those endorsements.