House Appropriations Bill

By: David Herzig

With all the diversions this week, it was easy to miss that the House Committee on Appropriations posted on June 28th the Appropriations Bill for FY 2018.  The bill seems to include a couple items that not many were expecting.  So, I thought I would highlight some of the key provisions.  Since it is Friday before a Holiday weekend, I’ll keep it short for now.  There are four main provisions I will address: (1) IRS Targeting/Johnson Amendment; (2) ACA Penalties; (3) Conservation Easements; and (4) 2704 (Estate/Gift Tax).

I. IRS Targeting/Death of Johnson Amendment

First, is a clear response to the “targeting” of groups from the Lois Lerner Administration. In three separate sections (107, 108 and 116), the bill attempts to regulate the IRS, not Continue reading “House Appropriations Bill”

About the ACLU’s [Update: FFRF’s] Challenge to the Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty EO

By Sam Brunson

Trump signed his Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty executive order earlier today. The EO was expected to order the IRS to stop enforcing the so-called Johnson Amendment against religious organizations. As Ben explained, by its language, it may have done significantly less—it appears to merely reaffirm the status quo for enforcement. Whatever its substantive effects, though, the existence of the order is no surprise, and, as has happened with any number of Trump’s previous EOs, the ACLU Freedom From Religion Foundation has already announced that it will challenge the EO in court. [Update: the ACLU looked at the EO and agreed with Ben that there was nothing there, and decided not to sue. The FFRF, otoh, decided to sue. So it’s the FFRF that will face these procedural hurdles before it has to face the substantive (or rather, lack of substance) ones.]

Leaving aside the question of whether this EO actually does anything substantive, it’s worth remembering that any judicial challenge to the executive order faces two significant hurdles: standing and administrative discretion.[fn1] It’s also possible that the Trump administration inadvertently made those hurdles easier to pass. Continue reading “About the ACLU’s [Update: FFRF’s] Challenge to the Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty EO”

Trump’s Johnson Amendment Executive Order Does Not Say What He Said it Said

By Benjamin Leff

Trump issued an Executive Order (EO) today, the text of which was a complete shock (at least to naive little me). I had written a thousand-word blog post based on reporting before the release of the EO that Trump would direct the Internal Revenue Service to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson amendment which prohibits religious leaders from speaking about politics and candidate from the pulpit[.]” Then I watched the whole signing ceremony and Trump confirmed that he was planning to clearly open the door for religious leaders to communicate their views on candidates from the pulpits of their houses of worship.

The pre-prepared post argued that the IRS should issue some guidance explaining how it would enforce the Johnson Amendment in light of the EO, especially (1) whether it would create a “safe harbor” only for the speech of the organization, or also for the organization’s money and (2) whether it would extend the “safe harbor” to all 501(c)(3) organizations, or just houses of worship. The general consensus among advocates of changing the Johnson Amendment is that any liberalization of the rule should apply equally to all 501(c)(3) organizations and that it should permit speech but not spending.

Then, after a couple of hours, the White House released the actual text of the Executive Order. Unless I’m blind, what it says is literally nothing like what the Trump Administration said it would say, and even less like what Trump said it said when he signed it in the Rose Garden ceremony just a few hours ago. Continue reading “Trump’s Johnson Amendment Executive Order Does Not Say What He Said it Said”

What is the Johnson Amendment?

By: David Herzig

As the world braces for the upcoming Executive Order from President Trump,

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I wanted to take a minute and describe the Johnson Amendment.  Later today, after the actual Executive Order is made public, Ben Leff will be writing up a more through post.

A couple of months ago President Donald Trump told the audience at the National Prayer Breakfast that he would “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. Which raises the question: what is the Johnson Amendment. Because he brought it up at the National Prayer Breakfast, it also leads to the question of how does affects churches.

In 1954, without explanation, Lyndon Johnson proposed a small amendment to the tax law governing tax-exempt organizations: forbid them from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. One of the few consistent talking points during president-elect Donald Trump’s campaign was that this so-called “Johnson Amendment” should be repealed; since comprehensive tax reform is part of Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office, the repeal may happen immediately. Continue reading “What is the Johnson Amendment?”

Newspapers and the Total Destruction of the Johnson Amendment

By Sam Brunson

Yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast, Donald Trump promised to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with the name “Johnson Amendment” (and I kind of hope you are—it’s a stupid name), that refers to the phrase in section 501(c)(3) that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. It was proposed by Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, and inserted into the tax code with little fanfare and no legislative history.

There’s a lot that can (and, in fact, has) been said about Trump’s proposal, which follows up on a campaign promise he made, apparently repeatedly. I wouldn’t doubt if we return to it a few times here at Surly. But I just wanted to point out one potential consequence: Continue reading “Newspapers and the Total Destruction of the Johnson Amendment”

Stuck in the Middle With . . . the IRS?!?

By Sam Brunson

Pity the IRS.[fn1] It is, right now, stuck in the middle of a battle over religion. See, churches, like other public charities, are exempt from tax under section 501(c)(3). But the exemption comes with certain limitations, including an absolute prohibition on supporting or opposing candidates for office.

This prohibition has become something of a culture wars battleground, at least with respect to churches. Some churches argue that they have a moral and religious obligation to support candidates whose actions are in line with their beliefs, or, alternatively, to oppose candidates whose actions violate their beliefs. As such, they claim this prohibition violates their Free Exercise rights, and is unconstitutional, at least as applied to churches.

The funny thing is that, as best I can tell, only one church has ever lost its tax exemption for violating this campaigning prohibition. Continue reading “Stuck in the Middle With . . . the IRS?!?”