Don't repeal the Johnson Amendment, fix it

We should limit political activity by churches—but not speech from the pulpit.

Donald Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment governing religious organizations’ involvement in politics. That would be a serious mistake. But the Johnson Amendment does need to be refined. Like so many things in Wash­ington, the issue is more nuanced than many of the advocates on either side will admit.

According to section 501(c)(3) of the In­ternal Revenue Code, most religious, charitable, and educational organizations in the private sector are tax-exempt. Their income, if they have any, is not taxable. Far more important, contributions to these organizations are tax-deductible for the donors.

This generous tax treatment comes with eligibility requirements, and one of these requirements is controversial. A 501(c)(3) organization cannot endorse or oppose a candidate for political office, even by implication. Senator Lyndon Johnson inserted this restriction into a bill in 1954 after two tax-exempt organizations had attacked him politically.