When talking about Pulpit Freedom Sunday, I generally get two basic objections to the concept of Pulpit Freedom. Yet these objections in some way are either misguided or just flat out wrong. I’ll discuss the second today:
Pastors can favor or oppose candidates – they should just give up their tax exempt status if they want to do so.
Some have argued the Johnson Amendment, contained in 501(c)(3) of the tax code, is a good idea because it prevents tax-exempt charitable organizations from engaging in election activity. In reality, though, there are 29 categories of organizations considered exempt from federal income taxes under section 501(c) of the tax code. Yet only organizations that fall within section 501(c)(3) are subject to the speech restriction of the Johnson Amendment. All of the other categories receive the benefit of exemption from income taxes and can endorse or oppose political candidates if they so choose. Why?
Section 501(c)(3) organizations are only subject to this restriction because, while he was a United States Senator, Lyndon B. Johnson inserted this amendment into section 501(c)(3) in 1954 as a way of silencing two secular non-profit organizations that were opposing his reelection. The amendment to section 501(c)(3) was not a reasoned approach – it was a revenge-motivated bill by a powerful senator bent on silencing his political opponents.
Additionally, tax exemption is not a matter of legislative grace for churches. It is a constitutionally protected right. The Supreme Court stated as far back as 1819 that the power to tax involves the power to destroy and that there is no surer way to destroy the free exercise of religion than to begin to tax it.
The Johnson Amendment forces upon churches an unconstitutional choice: surrender your constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, or lose your tax exemption. Clearly, though, the government is not allowed to condition tax exemption (which is something to which churches are constitutionally entitled) on the surrender of a constitutionally protected right.
To understand just how ridiculous this actually is, imagine a law that conditioned receipt of a tax exemption on a church giving up its constitutionally protected right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure, or giving up its right against self-incrimination, or requiring a church to quarter troops in its pews if it receives a tax exemption. That would be absurd. Why then do we tolerate allowing the government to condition a tax exemption on a church giving up its precious rights protected by the First Amendment?
Pulpit Freedom Sunday is designed to protect a simple, but fundamental idea – that pastors have a right to speak freely from their pulpits and not be subject to government censorship or threat of punishment when they do so. Pulpit Freedom Sunday is simply about pulpit freedom– no more, no less. Because it is not the “free exercise of religion” in any meaningful sense of that phrase if the government is allowed to punish a pastor for something he says from the pulpit.
We want every pastor to sign up to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday 2014. Go to www.pulpitfreedom.org to learn more and sign up to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday this year which will be held the weekend of October 5, 2014.
Have you heard this objection before? What other objections have you heard (or have) to Pulpit Freedom Sunday? Let us know in the comments below.