Our country has a rich and valued history of respecting the unique contribution religion makes to the moral culture of a people.
For nearly 200 years, until the mid-1950s, Americans turned to religious leaders and houses of worship during the debate of the great moral issues of the day. In the early decades of our country, the annual “election sermon” was common in churches.
Our religious leaders enjoyed the right to freedom of speech and, acknowledging our religious heritage, publicly addressed the key issues of their time, from their sincerely held religious viewpoints. Many of our Founding Fathers and early patriots were ministers.
Just sixty-two years ago, in 1954, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) reportedly sought political retribution against an opponent whose election campaign was supported by two non-profit organizations. His tactic was to quietly add an amendment to a standard tax bill. It barred all tax-exempt groups, including churches, from participating in partisan politics. It was never debated but passed on a voice vote.
This little-noticed amendment unleashed government’s intimidation and censorship over the freedom of speech and political advocacy of religious leaders. The I.R.S. has been used to intimidate churches and pastors into silence on important issues of the day, by threatening the loss of tax-exempt status for the contributions of their congregations. The consequence of this forced submission to this selective censorship has negatively impacted our nation’s spiritual and moral health.
In recent years, hundreds of pastors in dozens of states have participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. They preached from the Bible and what it says about certain “hot-button” social issues and, in some cases, how the positions of candidates for public office compare to Biblical standards.
These pastors and churches say they are exercising their right to free speech. But an increasing number of activist groups – like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State – are trying to force them to abandon their rights to free speech by threatening them with the IRS. In 2012, The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) actually sued the Internal Revenue Service for “failing to enforce electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations.” The two sides came to some kind of mutual “understanding” about future harassment of churches and in 2014 FFRF voluntarily withdrew the suit—for now!
Anti-religion advocacy groups, like these, and other supporters of the Johnson Amendment say churches give up their right to endorse candidates in exchange for tax-exempt status. They call this a subsidy which should be forfeited by those who violate the amendment. These groups claim the churches’ and pastors’ practices are violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and their rights to equal protection, under the law.
However, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which sponsors Pulpit Freedom Sunday, says other groups are tax-exempt but the IRS does not subject them to the speech restrictions placed on churches.
These groups include: Civic leagues; labor, agricultural, or horticultural associations; business leagues; chambers of commerce; real estate boards; boards of trade; professional football leagues; clubs organized for pleasure, recreation, and other nonprofit purposes; fraternal beneficiary societies; and cemeteries.
Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the ADF, has said:
“Pastors have a right to speak about biblical values from the pulpit without fear of punishment. No one should be able to use the government to intimidate pastors into giving up their constitutional rights. The government can’t demand that a church give up its right to tax-exempt status simply because the pastor exercises his First Amendment rights in the pulpit. Groups like Americans United [for the Separation of Church and State] intentionally trigger IRS investigations that will silence churches through fear, intimidation, and disinformation.”
In the current congressional year, a bill was presented in Congress with the potential to change this unintended censorship of churches and other religious organizations. H.R. 153 (Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-NC) would restore free speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations, by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment. It would put an end to the reign of the I.R.S. as “speech police” and restore our religious leader’s free-speech rights.
Pastor Jim Garlow, senior pastor at San Diego area’s Skyline Church, says what we used to call biblical, others now call political and seek to intimidate pastors and churches to avoid speaking on moral and ethical issues, which have public and national concern. He has urged pastors to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sundays and exercise their constitutionally protected right to engage in religious expression from the pulpit on public policy issues and even to endorse candidates who share their values.
Let’s renew “liberty and justice for all”—including our religious leaders and the congregations they serve.