President Trump has promised to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which restricts public charities from endorsing candidates for political office. Some people believe the amendment unfairly limits the free speech of church leaders who wish to advise their members regarding a specific candidate or referendum.

Does this mean that donors can get a tax deduction for making a gift to a church that advocates for a specific candidate or millage proposal before the voters?

A suggested compromise would allow a minister or other religious leader to advocate for a candidate, but would prohibit the church from spending any funds to support a candidate. Again, I wonder, does this mean that a donor could make a tax-deductible gift to a church that was supporting the donor’s favorite candidate, and perhaps withhold a gift from another that does not?

And if this is allowed for churches, would it also be allowed for other public charities? I wonder how this might be relaxed for churches but not others.

Furthermore, there are no set guidelines regarding what is a church. In practical terms, if you say you are a church, you are a church and you are automatically a public charity. You do not need to seek an exemption from the IRS. I would imagine that hundreds of new “churches” would sprout up — fed by political, deductible gifts — solely to support certain political parties, candidates or positions.

This seems like a Pandora’s box, and there is little evidence to suggest that this problem needs fixing.

—Mark Neithercut
March 28, 2017