The Johnson Amendment Survives Trump’s Executive Order

During the National Prayer Breakfast in early February, Donald Trump promised his religious allies that he would “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”

The Johnson Amendment – which was sponsored by Senator Lyndon Johnson and passed in 1954 – circumscribes the political speech available to religious entities registered as nonprofits. It ranks among the clearest legal lines separating organized religion and elected office, preventing religious charities from endorsing (or campaigning against) candidates while empowering the IRS to strip offending nonprofits of their tax-exempt status.

Earlier this month, Trump announced that he would soon sign an executive order designed to “vigorously promote religious liberty,” making good on his earlier promises to scuttle the law. What he actually signed, however, was a little less than what his religious supporters hoped for. This line from the order sums up its weakness:

All executive departments and agencies shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.

Effectively, the Johnson Amendment remains on the books. The ACLU, which was preparing to challenge the executive order should it greatly empower religious organizations to discriminate, released an official statement that deemed the document an “elaborate photo op with no discernible policy outcome.” As for now, the organization is not pursuing action in court.

Perhaps – as some pundits have pointed out – this is merely a rhetorical ploy intended to create the impression among Trump’s evangelical supporters that he’s expanding their political power. It could, of course, also be step one of a larger plan to dismantle the legal framework that enshrines the United States’ founding principle that church and state remain separate.

If the Trump Administration did eliminate the Johnson Amendment at some juncture, it would enable religious nonprofits – which already receive less IRS and government scrutiny than their secular counterparts – to deploy untaxed resources on behalf of candidates. This would be an unfair advantage, and would turn religious charities into processing plants for anonymous political funding.

Campaign financing is already shadowy, complex, and in dire need of reform. Striking down the Johnson Amendment is not going to better enable organizations to pursue their missions, but it will create a deep fissure of trust between organizations and the constituents they are supposed to serve.

Charities Step Up for Refugee Christians, Yazidis

As various nations, paramilitary groups, and coalitions continue their roles in the intractable war against ISIS, a growing humanitarian crisis is further jeopardizing regional stability and spurring relief nonprofits – both Christian and secular – into action to help persecuted minorities.

Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, an estimated 9 million people have been displaced as a result of the conflict (3 million making it to neighboring countries Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and 6 million displaced inside Syria). Few nations outside of the Middle East have extended a helping hand. Chief among those that have is Sweden, which has resettled some 30,000 refugees. Fellow EU member Bulgaria has also established camps for displaced Syrians, but is too cash-strapped to offer optimal services.

Refugees’ existence is precarious, dangerous, and divisive; often, host communities become hostile to innocent civilians fleering destruction at home, as recent riots and anti-refugee violence in Turkey show. Syrians have to cross borders on foot, covering immense distances with few resources. The crisis is also tearing apart families, with women and children comprising 75 percent of inhabitants in Turkish refugee camps. Men are more likely to stay behind to protect property or to take up arms in the conflict.

ISIS’ advance through Iraq and Syria has negatively impacted virtually all ethno-religious groups, as their intolerant and apocalyptic brand of theocratic politics ravages cities and attracts often indiscriminate military responses from the Syrian and Iraqi governments. Certain minorities, however, are singled out and persecuted, including Yazidis and Christians.

Yazidis are a Iraqi minority that practices Yazidism, a syncretic faith descendent from ancient Zoroastrianism and other Mesopotamian religions. ISIS – which views the sect as “devil worshippers” – infamously isolated 40,000 Yazidis on a mountain in August 2014, threatening them with starvation or dehydration if they stayed, and slaughter if they fled. The impasse was broken following military strikes led by the United States.

Christians also face virulent hatred and intolerance under the Islamic pseudo-state. ISIS gives Christians the option to either convert to Islam or be executed as heathens. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled their homes as a result. The country’s largest Christian cities – including Qaraqosh, Tel Askof, Tel Keif, and Qaramless – emptied almost completely before falling to militant jihadists.

The country’s Christian leaders are not mincing words about the onslaught, calling ISIS’ actions genocidal. Patriarch Louis Sako, leader of the Chaldean Catholic church described how 100,000 Christians were forced to flee the Nineveh province:

They fled their villages and houses [with] nothing but … the clothes on their backs …Christians are walking on foot in Iraq’s searing summer heat towards the Kurdish cities of Irbil, Duhok and Soulaymiyia, the sick, the elderly, infants and pregnant women among them. They are facing a human catastrophe and risk a real genocide.

Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, commented on what he sees as government responsibility for alleviating these conditions: “It is extremely important that aid efforts are supported and that those who have been displaced are able to find safety.”

While governments organize resources and begin formulating partnerships with various relief organizations, a number of nonprofits have already stepped up, rolling out fundraising appeals in the name of persecuted refugees. The Cradle of Christianity Fund (CCF) is using preexisting networks in the region to distribute basic necessities for Christians who fled with nothing. In part aided by the Jordanian government, the CCF focused later 20014 on providing refugees with resources to withstand the cold desert winter.

The Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organization is using donations to provide medical care for Christians displaced by the conflict. The International Orthodox Christian Charities is going even a step further, providing educational materials and remedial classes to refugees, as well as shelter and temporary employment.

Secular organizations are making a difference as well. The International Rescue Committee is providing medical and social services in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. Mercy Corps is distributing immediate needs – including food and clean drinking water – to displaced families.

These efforts are a tremendous start, but the severity of the problem warrants a unified, comprehensive approach that marries the UN, governments, and nonprofit groups into an effective and well-organized unit. The scope is massive – so too must the cooperation, trust, fundraising efforts, and generosity be if positive change for persecuted minorities is to happen.

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