'Johnson Amendment': The Important Presidential Issue You've Never Heard Of

The presidential debates are over, and the two major party candidates have pretty much managed to avoid discussing three of the most important problems facing the U.S. (if not the world): climate change, reining in Wall Street excesses, and poverty—all of which have been talked about on various news programs and in newspaper and magazine articles.

The issue that hasn't been mentioned, however, pretty much anywhere outside of the right-wing blogosphere is what's been termed "the Johnson Amendment"—and that is perhaps the single most important issue currently facing the adult entertainment community in discussing who should become our next president.

The U.S. Tax Code's Sec. 501(c)(3) exempts from federal taxation, "Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." [Emphasis added]

The last part of the statute, the part about not participating in or intervening in any political campaign, was added to the Tax Code in 1954 as a result of legislation proposed by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX), apparently because Johnson was no favorite of the conservative religious organizations in his home state, many of which had urged their parishioners not to vote for him.

In fact, the "Johnson Amendment" makes a lot of sense. Running for political office, or attempting to get Congress to consider a particular piece of legislation, takes a lot of money. More than $1.2 billion has been spent so far by and on behalf of the various presidential candidates, with political action committees (PACs) and the candidates themselves accounting for more than $60 million of it.

And the people and companies that contribute those funds can't write them off on their tax returns as "charitable" or any other sort of exempt expenditure; they have to (well, are supposed to) pay taxes on that money as part of their income, and while many certainly hope that the expenditures will afford them favorable treatment if their candidate is elected, they can't actually count on that, so the contributions could very well be money down the drain—and that's a consideration that many potential contributors factor in when decided whether and how much to donate.

But as is clear from the Tax Code section above, "religious" and "charitable" organizations are exempt from federal taxation, and the logical trade-off for that is that they should be barred from engaging in political activity on behalf of a candidate or piece of legislation because their tax exemption gives them an unfair advantage: No matter how much they would spend "politicking," individual and corporate contributions to such organizations for political purposes would not be considered "taxable income" under the Tax Code—unlike the money contributed to non-exempt individuals and organizations. In 2011, for example, churches received $96 billion in tax-free contributions, according to a Reuters article, and if the "Johnson Amendment" were repealed, every penny of that could be used to support or oppose candidates and legislation that religio-conservatives felt were for or against with their conservative political agendas.

However, with the rise of the Religious Right over the past couple of decades, religious and quasi-religious groups have begun to push the limits on their political speech as far as they can go. The far-right Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund) has encouraged clergy across the country to preach politics from the pulpit, even going so far as to help organize and defend "Pulpit Freedom Sundays," which usually occur at the end of September each year, during which those ministers have been encouraged, in violation of federal law, to support or oppose particular candidates and particular ballot measures that will be decided in the upcoming election. Some go even further: On November 1, a Catholic church in San Diego sent out a newsletter stating that "It is a mortal sin to vote Democrat."

Sadly, the Internal Revenue Service has been almost completely derelict in its duty to investigate these Tax Code violations and to remove the tax exempt status of those churches, synagogues, etc. which have been found to have violated the 501(c)(3) restrictions. In fact, exactly one church has had its exempt status removed for political activity: the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, NY, which in 1992 bought full-page newspaper ads urging the defeat of then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton—and even that church never lost its exemption from local property taxes, and in fact changed its name and continued operating as the Landmark Church with a new exemption.

But religio-conservatives have become even bolder during the current campaign season, issuing "voter guides" that somehow manage to convey the impression that Democrats are out to "force" same-sex marriage on everyone, let some "men" (otherwise known as transgendered women) use bathrooms and locker rooms reserved for "biological women," and generally assure that the culture will be awash in pornography and other forms of "immorality." Also, more and more clergy are railing against Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates in their Sunday sermons, and speaking out on local legislation with which they take issue, often because such legislation would extend civil rights to blacks, Hispanics, and felons who have completed their sentences, not to mention the religionists' favorite "chew toys": gays and transgenders.

"While opponents of the Johnson Amendment often frame their objections in terms of free speech, the provision’s primary impact may be financial," noted Emma Green in an article on TheAtlantic.com's website. "Right now, the IRS makes a clear distinction between non-profit groups—from charities and universities to certain private schools and houses of worship—and political organizations.

"If the Johnson Amendment were repealed, pastors would be able to endorse candidates from the pulpit, which they’re currently not allowed to do by law," she continued. "But it’s also true that a lot more money could possibly flow into politics via donations to churches and other religious organizations. That could mean religious groups would become much more powerful political forces in American politics—and it would almost certainly tee up future court battles."

Repeal of the "Johnson Amendment" was one of the prime topics at the Values Voter Summit held in Washington, D.C., in early September. Speaker after speaker promised the crowd of about 2,000 (pretty much all white) attendees that they would do everything in their power to see the ban on churches' political speech destroyed.

"We have to give our churches their voice back," claimed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. "Our Christian heritage will be cherished, defended like you've never seen before" by his administration, he promised.

"I'm committed to freeing up the pulpits of this nation," added his running mate Mike Pence. "We will take the muzzle off people of faith."

"If you choose to speak out on culture, we could come after you," Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) claimed was the IRS's position on church political speech.

In fact, nearly every politician who spoke during the two-day event paid at least some lip service to repealing the "gagging" of clergy speech.

The importance of this massive effort to repeal the "Johnson Amendment" should be obvious to anyone who favors free sexual speech. Conservatives still consider it their "moral duty" to attempt to rid the world of sexually explicit content and any frank public discussions of sexuality, and their key to doing so (or at least to forcing sexual speech underground) is electing religio-conservative politicians—a task that would be that much easier if churches could be turned into essentially political action committees, able to spend as much money as they like to affect elections.

Yet somehow, none of that has yet been mentioned in the presidential debates nor in most discussions of election issues.

Sad. Very, very sad.