How End Citizens United Is Working to Keep Church and State Separate

End Citizens United is keeping Big Money out of the Church and Politics

Although the phrase "separation of church and state" doesn't explicitly appear in the U.S. Constitution, it has long been one of the nation's defining political characteristics. By maintaining firm boundaries between the government and the population's exercise of religious freedoms, lawmakers ensured that Americans enjoyed the privileges of life in a secular state.

Now, some politicians are trying to blur this essential dividing line to benefit an increasingly powerful class of oligarchs. By weakening critical statutes that keep the wealthy from using churches to make secret campaign contributions, these lawmakers may tip the political balance even more in favor of the privileged few. Here's what you need to know about how End Citizens United is fighting back.

The Johnson Amendment Explained in Simple Terms

In 1954, future President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced a law that would change the way religion and politics interacted. The so-called Johnson Amendment made it illegal for any 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity to oppose or endorse political candidates.

This tax code law essentially prevented donors from funneling money through organizations like universities and churches. The Johnson Amendment ensures that political contributors can't shirk their obligations to disclose their tax-exempt campaign-funding activities by using 501(c)(3)s like churches, which don't have to report what they're doing with the money.

President Trump Enters the Scene

In early May 2017, President Donald Trump followed up on a campaign promise that he would eliminate the Johnson Amendment. Although he lacked the constitutional powers to simply rewrite the Internal Revenue Code, he signed an executive order commanding the Department of the Treasury to shy away from penalizing churches for making so-called "implied endorsements" of political candidates. Just a couple of months earlier, GOP lawmakers put forth a bill that would have loosened the rules governing 501(c)(3) political activities as long as these organizations minimized their spending.

These efforts faced pushback not only from political adversaries but also organizations like the National Council of Nonprofits, which noted that the Johnson Amendment never precluded religious organizations from exercising their First Amendment rights. Opponents also said that charities could potentially place their nonprofit missions at risk by politicizing their work.

On July 13, Attorney General Jeff Sessions revealed that he had been directed by the president to issue a new guidance for how federal agencies should deal with religious liberty protections. While the Johnson Amendment may technically remain in place, the nation's top law enforcement official taking a new stance could set the stage for its inevitable erosion.

What Is End Citizens United Doing?

The day after the Sessions announcement, Tiffany Muller, the executive director and president of End Citizens United, noted that the organization wouldn't accept the changes quietly. Instead, she declared the group's intention to fight back against a provision in the House Appropriations Bill that essentially transformed churches into political money launderers.

This must-pass bill included a rider known as Section 116 that prohibited the IRS from enforcing Johnson Amendment rules against religious nonprofits. With the passage of the bill and rider, faith-based nonprofits that depend on donations may become little more than tools of the super-rich who use their contributions as leverage to gain political compliance. Houses of worship also risk being seen as campaign tools instead of important cultural centers. Moving forward, advocates at End Citizens United and other groups are likely to play critical roles in the uncertain legal climate established by the conflicts between Section 116 and the still-extant Johnson Amendment.

About End Citizens United

End Citizens United is a political action committee that strives to combat the tides of partisan imbalance unleashed by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. F.E.C. decision. In the wake of the ruling that corporations have the same political First Amendment rights as human beings, ECU's mission is to disentangle Big Money from politics and return the U.S. to a just democracy.

ECU firmly believes that everyone's say should count, not just those with the money to buy the loudest platforms. By helping elect candidates who enact campaign finance reform policies and drawing national attention to the issue of money in politics, this organization is working to help Americans regain the hard-fought benefits of anti-corruption laws and a fairer electoral system.

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