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New freedoms for churches to back candidates cut from tax bill

The GOP tax overhaul bill expected to reach President Donald Trump's desk for signing this week will arrive without one of its more controversial elements — one that could have had a unique impact on Tampa Bay.

The final version does not include a softening of the Johnson Amendment, which was proposed in the House's original bill and would have enabled churches to endorse political candidates.

In a city like Clearwater, where the Church of Scientology owns nearly $250 million worth of property and has a history of seeking legitimacy through proximity to politicians, the change could have given the organization a unique boost to advance its interests, said Mark Silk, director of Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College.

"By virtue of its business interests and general interest in wanting to have its way in a community where it has a lot of money to throw around, it would enhance its influence, I don't think there's much question," Silk said.

The Church of Scientology has not responded to a request for comment.

Democrats challenged the House's change to the Johnson Amendment based on the Byrd Rule, which states tax legislation cannot have provisions directly unrelated to taxes.

The Senate's original version did not include a change to the ability of churches to politic. The provision was scrapped during the process known as reconciliation where both chambers ironed out the differences.

The House passed the final version of the $1.5 trillion tax bill Tuesday, sending it next to the Senate.