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On Wednesday, Texas' top officials took time out of their week to urge members of Congress to pass a bill that unabashedly blurs the line between church and state.
"Religious liberty is a cornerstone of our republic," write Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton
in a joint letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. "From the birth of the nation until passage of the Johnson Amendment, churches and pastors played a vital role in bringing a faith perspective to the pressing political issues of the day."
The two Republican state officials have asked Congress to pass the Free Speech Fairness Act, a measure that would override the Johnson Amendment — the 60-year-old rule barring tax-exempt organizations, like churches and non-profits, from endorsing political campaigns. Or, in the words of New York Times
political reporter Jeremy Peters, "one of the brightest lines in the legal separation between religion and politics."
Abbott and Paxton argue that the Fairness Act — or House Bill 172 — would allow pastors to speak without the threat of censorship, and even help improve political dialogue. They use an arguably bizarre example to prove this point.
"Churches ...played less well-known, but certainly significant, roles in political discussions, including legislation in the early 1800s to criminalize dueling."
In the early 1800s the U.S. government also created an entire bureau to force Native Americans to convert to Christianity, believing it was their only chance at survival. (They didn't mention this).
Paxton and Abbott also didn't mention the major self-serving benefit of this bill's passage. Overturning the Johnson Amendment, named after Texas' own Lyndon B. Johnson, would allow tax-free donations from a church or charity organization to directly fund a political campaign. Unsurprisingly, conservative Christian organizations (like the notoriously anti-LGBT
Family Research Council), who fill the pockets of far-right Republicans like Paxton and Abbott, wholeheartedly support this reversal.
But many other religious and non-profit groups oppose this move.
On Tuesday, a coalition of 99 religious and denominational organizations — representing Baptist, Islamic, Seventh-day Adventist, Catholic, Jewish, and dozens of other religious groups — sent a letter
to congressional leaders asking them to throw out HB 172 to preserve religious integrity and credibility.
"The charitable sector, particularly houses of worship, should not become another cog in a political machine or another loophole in campaign finance laws," the group wrote.
"Houses of worship are spaces for members of religious communities to come together, not be divided along political lines, faith ought to be a source of connection and community, not division and discord."
Non-religious members of the tax-exempt sector seem even less pleased to be dragged into the partisan conversation. Both the Council on Foundations (representing charitable organizations
) and the National Council of Non-Profits wrote letters to Congress urging lawmakers to keep the Johnson Amendment intact.
"Our society is better today, because 501(c)(3) organizations operate as safe havens from the caustic partisanship that currently is bedeviling our country, as places where people can come together to actually solve community problems rather than just posture and remain torn apart," write the NCN.
"Repeal or revision of the law would damage the integrity and effectiveness of all charitable nonprofits and foundations."
But Paxton and Abbott were unapologetic in their support of smashing these decades-old barriers — and applauded President Trump's simply-worded support
of HB 172.
"Churches have been kept on the sidelines of political debate," they write. "We agree with the president that Congress should 'totally destroy' the Johnson Amendment."