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Church politicking provision stripped from GOP tax plan

The Republican effort to repeal the "Johnson Amendment" has been pulled from the GOP tax plan, but that doesn't mean the idea is dead.
The sun rises behind the steeple of a church, Aug. 23, 2015, in Plains, Ga. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)
The sun rises behind the steeple of a church, Aug. 23, 2015, in Plains, Ga.

Donald Trump has long promised his religious right allies that he'd deliver on one of the movement's top priorities: changing the law to allow houses of worship to engage in partisan activities without fear of losing their tax-exempt status. It was therefore of great interest when House Republicans added the idea of repealing the "Johnson Amendment'" to their tax plan.

Indeed, as regular readers know, GOP lawmakers shaped their proposal in such a way as to allow any non-profit entity to engage in partisan political activities, including endorsing candidates and political parties, without inviting IRS penalties.

In practical terms, this change wouldn't just empower the religious right in its drive to turn churches into a political machine; it would also open the door to tax-deductible money laundering.

The Senate tax plan didn't include this provision, leading to uncertainty about the initiative's future. Yesterday as the Wall Street Journal reported, the push to repeal the Johnson Amendment through the Republican tax package died.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) says the chamber's parliamentarian has blocked a proposal to let churches and charities engage in partisan politics, keeping it out of the final tax bill set to be unveiled Friday.The repeal of the Johnson Amendment was in the House tax bill but not in the Senate's version, and it was a priority for President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.

For those concerned with the integrity of the nation's campaign finance laws, and advocates of church-state separation, this is clearly good news. But I think it's probably premature to say the entire effort is dead.

Though it's unclear if the president actually understands the policy or its consequences, this is one of the few proposals on which Donald Trump has been entirely consistent, before and after the election. Indeed, two weeks after his inauguration, he vowed at a prayer breakfast, "I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.... I will do that, remember."

This isn't just a presidential priority. Before the GOP's tax plan started taking shape, Republican legislation to change federal tax law to allow church politicking was slowly working its way through Capitol Hill, even passing one committee.

The idea may be gone from the tax-cut legislation, but it's likely conservative lawmakers will renew their interest in the freestanding bill.