WASHINGTON — For years, a coalition of well-funded groups on the religious right have waged an uphill battle to repeal a 1954 law that bans churches and other nonprofit groups from engaging in political activity.
Now, those groups are edging toward a once-improbable victory as Republican lawmakers, with the enthusiastic backing of President Trump, prepare to rewrite large swaths of the United States tax code as part of the $1.5 trillion tax package moving through Congress.
Among the changes in the tax bill that passed the House this month is a provision to roll back the 1954 ban, a move that is championed by the religious right, but opposed by thousands of religious and nonprofit leaders, who warn that it could blur the line between charity and politics.
The change could turn churches into a well-funded political force, with donors diverting as much as $1.7 billion each year from traditional political committees to churches and other nonprofit groups that could legally engage in partisan politics for the first time, according to an estimate by the nonpartisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.
The Senate will begin voting as early as midweek on its own version of the sweeping tax rewrite, which leaves the ban untouched, and differs in other key ways from the House version. The Senate bill has yet to garner enough support from Republicans to pass along party lines, with Republican senators raising concerns about the bill’s cost and approach, including how small businesses are treated and the elimination of the Affordable Care Act requirement that most Americans have health insurance or pay a penalty.
Among those on the fence are Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, who has expressed concerns about the bill’s impact on the budget deficit but favors ending the 1954 ban. In a possible sign of the horse trading to come to try to secure votes, a spokesman for Mr. Lankford said on Sunday that the senator was working to insert language into the Senate bill to roll back the ban, and believed it had a good chance of being included.
If the bill passes the Senate, lawmakers will still need to resolve key differences between the House and Senate bills, including whether to make the tax cuts for individuals permanent, as the House bill does, or temporary, as in the Senate legislation. Leaders will also need to decide what to do about popular tax breaks, like the mortgage interest and state and local tax deductions, which each bill treats differently.
With time running out for Republicans to deliver a major legislative victory after nearly a year of stalemate on the party’s top agenda items, lawmakers appear poised to agree to last-minute changes and tweaks to try to ensure the bill’s passage so it can be delivered to President Trump by Christmas. Tax bill negotiations are expected to kick into high gear on Monday, as lawmakers return to Washington with just a handful of legislative days left and big issues to contend with, including the need to pass a funding measure to keep the government open beyond Dec. 8 and action to protect the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.
The need for a legislative victory is giving comfort to those on the religious right that the final bill sent to the president will include the House language, which was drafted with significant input from evangelical groups.
The sudden movement toward their goal appears to trace back to a January 2016 meeting that Mr. Trump, then a presidential candidate, had convened at his Trump Tower office in Manhattan with evangelical leaders he was courting.
That meeting helped lead to a campaign pledge by Mr. Trump to repeal the ban, known as the Johnson Amendment, and set the stage for its inclusion in the tax code overhaul that passed the House.
Critics warn that the change could dramatically increase untraceable political spending and lead to the creation of “sham churches” to take advantage of the new avenue for political spending, which — unlike donations to candidates, “super PACs” and party committees — would allow donors to deduct contributions.
Thousands of religious leaders, as well as groups and denominations like the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, say rolling back the Johnson Amendment would be the biggest threat to the stability and mission of their organizations in a generation. Charities and houses of worship whose members, staffs and boards of directors now span the political spectrum predict that they will be pressured to take sides in political campaigns. Nonprofits and religious groups that receive government funding worry that politicians or donors will pressure them for endorsements in exchange for continued funding.
“It will bring the partisan divide to our doors,” said Jatrice Martel Gaiter, the executive vice president of external affairs for Volunteers of America, a ministry and social service provider that receives about 70 percent of its funding from the government. “If the Senate doesn’t stop this, there will be havoc in the nonprofit sector.”
Christian conservative leaders contend that the provision in the House bill was drafted narrowly to avoid any such abuse, and they cast the issue as a matter of constitutional rights, rather than politics.
Both sides agree that repealing or dialing back the Johnson Amendment seemed improbable at best as recently as a year and a half ago. That was when Mr. Trump’s surprising embrace injected new life into it, and helped spark an alliance that benefited his campaign and the religious right.
For evangelical leaders, it was an important signal that Mr. Trump — despite his two divorces, lack of religiosity and alleged mistreatment of women — might do more to advance their long-stalled agenda than more traditional Republican politicians. And for Mr. Trump, it expanded his reach into conservative Christian communities that had been skeptical of him, but are a critical base of Republican support.
“That’s the way the world works. The world is transactional. What can we pursue that is mutually beneficial?” said Tony Perkins, a leading figure on the Christian right who is the president of the Family Research Council. His group has been working against the Johnson Amendment for more than a decade. “The awareness was building, but the real catalyst of this conversation was Donald Trump.”
Conservative Christian leaders say Mr. Trump seized on the issue at the January meeting in his office. He asked “why Christian organizations and churches did not speak out more on the public policy issues,” said Jerry A. Johnson, the president and chief executive of the National Religious Broadcasters.
The assembled leaders responded in part by pointing to “the chilling effect of the Johnson Amendment,” Mr. Johnson said. He attended the meeting, but later endorsed one of Mr. Trump’s primary opponents, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who was the first choice of many evangelical leaders.
Mr. Cruz later dropped out of the race, effectively ceding the nomination to Mr. Trump, who formed a 25-member evangelical executive advisory board after he became the party’s presumptive nominee. At its first meeting in June 2016, attendees said, it became clear that repealing the Johnson Amendment would become a centerpiece of his campaign to win over the religious right.
Mr. Trump “cited a specific conversation he had with a pastor whom he’d met along the journey who didn’t feel he could endorse him, but he wanted to,” said Johnnie Moore, a Christian publicist who was appointed to Mr. Trump’s evangelical board. Mr. Trump said the Johnson Amendment, which threatens religious organizations and charities with loss of their tax-exempt status if they endorse or oppose political candidates, had created a situation in which “some of his most committed supporters were careful about the language they used publicly about him,” Mr. Moore said. He added that the candidate “appeared to be genuinely upset that the federal government would attempt to bully these organizations in this way.”
In a speech to hundreds of conservative Christians on June 21, 2016, Mr. Trump made his first public vow to repeal the Johnson Amendment, predicting that its elimination “will be my greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions.”
At his behest, the repeal effort was included in the Republican platform for the first time. “Nobody else would even think about doing it,” Mr. Trump boasted, explaining it was “for the evangelicals,” without whom, he said “I could not have won this nomination.”
Less than two weeks after his inauguration, Mr. Trump renewed his commitment to the cause, vowing in a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in February to “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
The Republican congressional leadership, for whom the Johnson Amendment had not been a top issue, followed the lead of the new president. Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the chairman of the tax code-writing House Ways and Means Committee, announced in a March speech that the tax plan being hashed out by his committee would “repeal the damaging effects of the Johnson Amendment, once and for all.”
Not waiting for Congress, Mr. Trump included a provision aimed at weakening the already anemic enforcement of the amendment in a May executive order billed as “promoting free speech and religious liberty.” It directed the Treasury secretary, who oversees the Internal Revenue Service, not to pursue enforcement efforts against any “individual, house of worship or other religious organization” for speaking about “moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”
The order was almost immediately challenged in federal court by the nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation, which said the order gave preference to “religion over nonreligion.”
The Johnson Amendment traces its origins — and its name — to Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and his 1954 re-election campaign. Concerned that his electoral prospects could be diminished by attacks from a pair of conservative nonprofit groups, he slipped a provision into a tax code overhaul to bar certain nonprofit groups from participating in political campaigns.
There is only one known instance of a church losing its tax-exempt status for running afoul of the law, despite ample documentation of churches explicitly endorsing or opposing candidates. And a 2016 poll found that the overwhelming majority of Americans oppose churches or pastors endorsing candidates in their official capacities.
Nonetheless, conservative Christian leaders have increasingly seized on the Johnson Amendment as an example of what they see as government hostility to religion in the public square.
“The law has a chilling effect on free speech,” said Michael Farris, the president of the Christian conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.
In 2008, Mr. Farris’s group began an effort to overturn the Johnson Amendment in court through an annual civil disobedience protest called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” His group and Mr. Perkins’s group helped recruit pastors to deliver overtly political sermons and transmit the recordings to the I.R.S. The aim was to tempt the agency to try to revoke the churches’ tax exemption, giving them standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment in court. It has yet to take the bait.
Other opponents began efforts to repeal the ban in Congress. Bills to do so were supported by powerful Christian conservative groups, including Mr. Perkins’s Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition and the Traditional Values Coalition, according to lobbying filings.
A more nuanced approach emerged from an interfaith commission convened in 2011 by another nonprofit group, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which suggested leaving the Johnson Amendment intact but allowing churches and other nonprofit groups to support or oppose candidates in the “ordinary course of an organization’s regular and customary” activities, provided the amount spent on such activity was “de minimis.”
The recommendations became the basis for a bill called the Free Speech Fairness Act, which was introduced last year in the House by Representative Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, and this year in the Senate by Mr. Lankford, and for the language in the House tax bill.