CLEARWATER — It was the evangelical Christian right that cheered President Donald Trump's early promise to revoke the law that forbids churches, with their tax-exempt status, from endorsing political candidates.
Now that Republican lawmakers have tucked a provision softening the Johnson Amendment into the House tax reform bill, the impact could be broader than the Trump supporters envisioned, giving aid to the Church of Scientology, with its history of seeking legitimacy through proximity to politicians.
While the House version of the tax overhaul includes wording allowing religious leaders and nonprofits to back candidates without losing their tax-exempt status, the Senate version doesn't mention it. Both chambers now have to reconcile the versions so a final bill can go for a vote.
If the change makes the cut, the Church of Scientology could use it to find political allies against the intense, ongoing scrutiny blanketing the organization. The church is facing calls for the IRS to investigate allegations it exploits members financially to enrich its leader David Miscavige, petitions for the FBI to re-investigate allegations of human trafficking, and the viral success of the Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath series, which has detailed alleged abuses and fraud to millions of viewers.
"They will not use this so much to forward a social agenda, they will spend money to buy influence to protect themselves from 'attacks,' which by their definition, is anything that exposes their abuses," said Mike Rinder, who spent 25 years as a senior Scientology executive before defecting in 2007 and is now a consulting producer on the Remini series.
Scientology's local spokesman, Ben Shaw, and its international spokeswoman, Karin Pouw, did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment.
In Clearwater, home of its international spiritual headquarters, Scientology has long aligned itself with political figures to promote its "social betterment" causes like combating drug use and advancing human rights. Attorney General Pam Bondi has spoken at church events focused on human trafficking and the dangers of pill mills, and benefited from a fundraiser for her re-election campaign in 2014 organized by six prominent parishioners.
In 2015, then-U.S. Rep. David Jolly was a guest of honor at Scientology's Clearwater centennial celebration and last year pushed church-backed legislation to study the relationship between psychiatric drugs and veteran suicide.
On Monday, when asked if a Scientology endorsement would help or hurt a candidate amid the allegations of abuse against the organization, Jolly said "I don't know that it has any effect, to be honest."
Jolly said while he accepted invitations to various churches while in office, he doesn't believe any religion should endorse political candidates because the freedom churches have to be exempt from tax laws should be "constrained to matters of faith not of politics."
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"I, for one, would never feel comfortable with a church endorsing me," he said.
But in a city like Clearwater, where Scientology owns $207 million worth of property under its name and at least another $27 million under limited liability companies, the prospect of an unbridled and politically active Scientology is real, 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. "All of a sudden, it can now be more forthcoming in talking to people about how these City Council members have to go and how those City Council members would be best for the city."
Beyond Scientology, the nonpartisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the Johnson Amendment rollback could prompt donors to divert $1.7 billion each year from political committees to churches now free to politick from the pulpit and nonprofits to do the same. The law preventing that speech has been in place since 1954, sponsored by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who was reacting to a conservative nonprofit's involvement in spreading materials supporting his primary opponent.
The National Council of Churches — with members of Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist and other denominations — considers the prospect of churches intervening in politics "dangerous both for the integrity of houses of worship and our democracy."
But Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at Newseum Institute, notes politics is already being preached in churches today. Under current IRS rules, religious leaders may speak out about policy issues as long as they don't tell parishioners who to vote for.
Ministers still get around that routinely by making clear how certain candidates stand on policies supported by the church or inviting only one candidate to events.
"How much this would change political life or religious communities is debatable," Haynes said. "Most religious leaders will continue to avoid dividing congregations with explicit endorsements. Some will make more explicit what they are already doing."
While the House bill's revisions to the Johnson Amendment stop short of lifting prohibitions on direct financial contributions from churches to campaigns, the implications for how churches can spend parishioners' tax exempt donations is drawing concern.
The bill would allow churches and charities to back candidates, but only in the "ordinary course" of their regular activities and only if it "results in the organization incurring not more than (minor) incremental expenses."
While endorsements would cost little for a church or a charity in terms of mailers, for example, the value of those endorsements for politicians would be priceless, according to Roger Colinvaux a professor of law at Catholic University of America who also worked as a legislative counsel at Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation from 2001 to 2008.
Colinvaux suggests the changes could open the door to anonymous political donors giving to churches with the expectation that the money be used on endorsements, creating a new haven for dark money. He fears nonprofits "would feel pressure to intervene in elections to please donors."
"Donors would undoubtedly be willing to pay thousands of dollars for routine endorsements from important charities," Colinvaux wrote in The Chronicle of Philanthropy last month. "There would be no way to know whether a donor was paying for charity or for politics, and in truth, for many groups, there would cease to be a difference."
Haynes is less concerned, doubting dark money will flow through churches because the House's proposed change keeps the ban on direct contributions from churches to candidates.
While restrictions on direct campaign donations from churches has held Scientology's influence back politically, Rinder said this legislation still has the ability to change that in a unique way.
"One thing Scientology has plenty of is money," Rinder said. "Short on credibility, but long on cash. In the political arena, money talks."
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.