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BJC Fellows on Giving Tuesday

Two BJC Fellows — Jaimie Crumley, a 2016 BJC Fellow (shown above on the right), and Kristen Nielsen Donnelly, a 2017 BJC Fellow, (shown above on the left) — share why they choose to support and contribute to the future of the BJC Fellows Program on Giving Tuesday. To show your support, visit BJConline.org/GivingTuesday2017.

Click here to learn more about the BJC Fellows program, and head to iTunes for more BJC podcasts.


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Gutting Johnson Amendment Could Send “Dark-Money Politics” to Houses of Worship

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Written by Don Byrd

The Washington Post has announced its opposition to provisions in the U.S. House tax bill undermining a key protection in the law for houses of worship. The Editorial Board warned against rolling back the so-called Johnson Amendment, which bars tax-exempt organizations like houses of worship from engaging in electoral politics. Religious organizations including the BJC have urged Congress to leave the law intact because of the harm to congregations that is likely to follow from introducing politics into our sanctuaries. The Post column, published over the weekend, focuses on a separate but related danger to the proposed change: the harm that will be done to the integrity of our campaign finance system through the exploitation of houses of worship.

Here is an excerpt:

What the House bill really amounts to is throwing open an entirely new channel for campaign money to politicize churches, charities and foundations. Today, so-called super PACs are a massive force in politics, spending more than $1 billion in the 2016 election cycle. Such super PAC donations must be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission and are not tax-deductible. What if these donors are tempted to give their money to a 501(c)3 organization …read more

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Judge Dismisses Challenge to West Virginia School District Bible Curriculum

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Written by Don Byrd

When is it ok to teach classes about the Bible in public schools? That question will have to wait for another day in Mercer County, West Virginia, after a judge dismissed a lawsuit on the grounds that it was not ripe for a ruling.

The plaintiffs argue the program, which offers voluntary, privately funded, weekly Bible study to elementary and middle school students during the school day, violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. Even though students can opt out of the program, the parents who filed suit contend that their children are placed in an impossible position: either attend classes of indoctrination that runs counter to their conscience, or be isolated by choosing not to participate. The First Amendment, they say, does not allow a public school system to put their children to such a choice.

In dismissing the suit this week, the judge did not address that question. Instead, he pointed to the fact that the school district voted to suspend the program “for at least a year” to review the curriculum and consider modifications. Because of that, and because such cases are very fact-dependent, the judge ruled, it is not time to evaluate the constitutionality of the …read more

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Senate Tax Proposal Leaves Johnson Amendment Protections Intact

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Written by Don Byrd

Unlike the House version, the tax bill proposal released by Senate Republicans last week does not touch a key provision in the law, the Johnson Amendment, which protects houses of worship and other 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations from politicization. The Nonprofit Times reports the Johnson Amendment is left “intact” in the initial Senate release.

As I posted last week, a troubling section in the House bill that passed the Ways and Means Committee would end the ban on tax-deductible political endorsements, a move that would encourage campaigns and political donors to exploit churches and other nonprofit organizations for political purposes. The BJC’s Amanda Tyler has said “the impact of this change on our religious communities…may be seismic.”

Importantly, both the Senate and House bills remain in flux. The House is reportedly set to vote Thursday. Meanwhile Senate Republicans continue to make changes to their proposal, which is being written in the Finance Committee. If both chambers pass a tax measure, the differences would presumably be worked out in a conference committee made up of Senators and Representatives before returning to both the House and the Senate for a final vote.

More than <a target="_blank" href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/568e979c40667a5cc6a4eaf1/t/59663edde45a7c1a7cc21615/1499872989789/07-12-17+FSGG+Johnson+Sign+On+Letter+FINAL.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener …read more

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Republicans Want to Make the Koch Brothers’ Political Donations Tax Deductible

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By Noah Lanard, Mother Jones

Below is an excerpt. Read the full article on Mother Jones’s website.

Few adolescents who’ve sat through homilies would accuse priests or rabbis of lacking material. House Republicans beg to differ. Under their tax bill, religious institutions—and all nonprofits—would be able to endorse politicians for the first time since 1954.

The House tax cut plan would repeal a tax provision, known as the “Johnson Amendment,” that blocks churches and other nonprofits from electioneering. The Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), a nonpartisan Congressional body, expects that this change would lead to billions of dollars of political-spending being routed through nonprofits that can collect tax-deductible contributions without disclosing their donors. As a result, mega-donors like the Koch brothers would likely get tax write-offs for funding television ads and get-out-the-vote operations.

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As proof that churches’ freedom of speech is threatened by current rules, Scalise points to the Church at Pierce Creek, a New York church that lost its nonprofit status over two decades ago. Amanda Tyler, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which works to defend the separation of church and state, says that case shows how much nonprofits can already do …read more

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Students at Islamic High School Counter Hatred with Facts, Understanding

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Written by Don Byrd

Al-Ghazaly High School is an Islamic school in Wayne, New Jersey. When its Imam discovered hateful responses directed at Muslims in the comment section of a local news column, he made a remarkable decision about how best to respond. He asked the seniors at the school to reply – not with vitriol or snark, but instead with facts.

Reverend Alexander Santora, whose column elicited the initial responses, went to the school to meet the senior class. He writes about his visit in his new column:

Confronted with hateful comments, Yousuf Tariq-Shuaib, 17, said “stay calm.” The Paterson resident said some people want to be “edgy” to elicit a laugh.

“If we respond in kind, we add fuel to the fire,” he said.

He said we should simply try to inform.

“Some people are afraid of what they do not understand,” 17-year-old Salma Zaiter, who lives in Clifton, said. She said to keep a cool head and inform so people get a little bit of insight.

Rama Saadi, 17, advised: “Don’t get angry and treat them well.”

The Hawthorne resident said to “smile at them with respect.”

If that doesn’t give you hope, what will? Responding …read more

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Federal Court in Texas Denies FEMA’s Request to Halt Church Funding Suit

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Written by Don Byrd

A federal judge in Texas agreed to delay, temporarily, ruling on a preliminary injunction in a case challenging FEMA’s longstanding policy not to provide grants to houses of worship. The judge, however, declined the agency’s request to halt the suit while it reconsiders its grant eligibility rules. He called on FEMA lawyers (and, really, anyone) to offer arguments in defense of the policy.

The plaintiff churches, who are asking for an injunction halting FEMA’s policy, argue the denial violates their Free Exercise rights by discriminating against houses of worship when secular organizations are allowed to receive grants. They point to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Trinity Lutheran Church, which ruled unconstitutional a state policy denying houses of worship access to a playground improvement grant.

The judge noted the position of the plaintiffs, and then requested that FEMA (and other interested parties) participate in the argument:

FEMA has declined to defend the merits of its policy. FEMA has also declined to engage in a substantive analysis of the four-part criteria that govern the issuance of a preliminary injunction. . . . The Court has received instructive briefing from amici in support of Plaintiffs’ Motion, for which it expresses gratitude. …read more

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A Change to the Tax Bill Makes “Even Worse” a Section Undermining Protections for Houses of Worship

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Written by Don Byrd

As I posted yesterday, the House Ways and Means Committee rejected an amendment to the tax bill that would have removed a troubling provision (Section 5201) undermining a key protection for houses of worship in the tax code known as the “Johnson Amendment.” Since then, the Committee approved another amendment that makes Section 5201 even more sweeping in its impact on non-profit organizations including houses of worship.

The original tax bill included language exempting churches from the requirement that they refrain from political endorsements to maintain their tax-exempt status, despite opposition from more than 100 religious organizations and 4200+ faith leaders. Instead of removing that section, today’s amendment included a change that would exempt all 501(c)(3) organizations from the rule. As the Baptist Joint Committee’s Amanda Tyler explained in a statement issued today, that is a huge step backward.

The tax bill headed to the full House comes out of committee even worse than it began for the charitable community, including our houses of worship. After a last-minute amendment, now the entire 501(c)(3) sector can be used by partisan campaigns and by donors looking for a tax deduction for their campaign contributions. Though the cost …read more

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Baptist leader says tax bill headed to the House floor now even worse for houses of worship and the charitable sector

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Tyler: There’s nothing free about a pulpit bought and paid for by campaign donations

Media contact: Cherilyn Crowe / ccrowe@BJConline.org / Office: 202-544-4226 / Cell: 202-670-5877

In response to today’s Ways and Means Committee approval of the tax bill, including language severely undermining the protections of the “Johnson Amendment,” Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, issued the following statement:

“The tax bill headed to the full House comes out of committee even worse than it began for the charitable community, including our houses of worship. After a last-minute amendment, now the entire 501(c)(3) sector can be used by partisan campaigns and by donors looking for a tax deduction for their campaign contributions. Though the more than $2 billion cost may seem small in the context of the larger bill, the impact of this change on our religious communities, nonprofits, and campaign finance system may be seismic.”

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Tyler’s earlier statement upon the release of the tax bill is below and at this link, including additional resources.

Baptists say tax bill will deform – not reform – the tax law that protects houses of worship

For Immediate Release: November 2, 2017
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Religious holidays and public schools are focus of 2018 BJC essay scholarship contest

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Ilana Ostrin 202-544-4226 iostrin@BJConline.org

WASHINGTON—Students can win money for college by writing an essay discussing whether public school calendars should accommodate religious holidays in the 2018 Religious Liberty Essay Scholarship Contest. The annual contest is sponsored by the Religious Liberty Council of the Baptist Joint Committee.

The contest engages high school juniors and seniors in church-state issues by directing them to express a point of view on a religious liberty topic. To enter, students must write a 800-1,200 word essay responding to the following prompt:

In most public high schools, certain days are marked as religious holidays on the school calendar, and the schools are closed on those days. As public schools become more diverse, some students’ religious holy day(s) are not days that the schools are closed, resulting in absences for those students.

In an essay, discuss whether public school calendars should accommodate religious holidays.

Consider how school administrators should determine if, or which, religious holy days are included in the school calendar, or if any school policies should be changed to better accommodate students’ religious exercise. Be sure your essay identifies how the First Amendment supports your position.

Students should develop …read more

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