March 31, 2017

Church in North-America Reinforces Position on Church and State Separation

North-American Division

Recent events by both the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. Government have brought the Johnson Amendment and participation in elections by non-profits (including churches) to the forefront. The Johnson Amendment is the 1954 amendment to Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code prohibiting tax exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. This amendment is so named because of its sponsorship by then Senator Lyndon Johnson who had been targeted by a non-profit during an election.

While not controversial when passed, it is now viewed by some as an infringement on the religious liberty and speech rights of churches. Critics contend that it regulates what can be said from the pulpit, normally one of the most sacrosanct places free from government intrusion. Others have raised concerns that it creates an environment for further regulation of churches via the tax code.

Johnson Amendment supporters view the law as an important tool in the separation of church and state. They argue that this law insulates churches from undue pressure by candidates and from political influence. Supporters also contend the law protects the electoral process from corruption via tax deductible contributions and improper use of tax exempt funds by public charities.

Should the law be changed, the church will not modify its practice of remaining neutral in elections.

Current proposals include a complete repeal of the Johnson Amendment or allowing non-profits to support candidates if only a minimal amount of money is expended. Under the latter proposal, a pastor would be allowed to endorse a candidate from the pulpit, but could not pay for advertisements to support the candidate. A full repeal would allow a church to spend money, though not an unlimited amount, directly supporting a candidate.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America, because of its biblical beliefs and practices, does not desire to intervene in elections. Additionally, the church has opposed certain previous proposals for a full repeal of the Johnson Amendment. Therefore, while recognizing the law’s potential First Amendment concerns, the church reaffirms its opposition to legislative efforts to eliminate or weaken rules that prohibit non-profits, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing candidates.

Should the law be changed, the church will not modify its practice of remaining neutral in elections. While church members are free to support candidates or even run for office themselves, it is not the role of the church to become involved in the electoral sphere.