The revelations about the IRS targeting conservative groups seem to keep coming. According to Fox News, the IRS targeting went broader than originally reported. Apparently, the IRS’ additional scrutiny “went beyond targeting ‘Tea Party’ and ‘patriot’ groups to include those focused on government spending, the Constitution and several other broad areas.”
Michigan representative Mike Rogers was on Fox News Sunday where he said: “The conclusion that the IRS came to is that they did have agents who were engaged in intimidation of political groups… I don’t care if you’re a conservative, a liberal, a Democrat or a Republican, this should send a chill up your spine. It needs to have a full investigation.”
This news is bad. And it should send a chill up our spines to know that a very powerful branch of the federal government was specifically targeting political groups with which it disagreed. Such behavior is more fitting in an authoritarian style of government and should have no place in our constitutional republic. It is chilling to be labeled, even in a indirect way, as an enemy of the state and to have the power of the federal government arrayed against you.
But what should be reported is that the targeting by the IRS goes even deeper than what is just reported. Because the IRS has been targeting churches since the passage of the Johnson Amendment in 1954. There is no difference between what the IRS has been caught doing with conservative groups and what the IRS has done to churches for the last 59 years. Both are intimidation. Imagine the impact of a system of intimidation targeting a particular group left unchecked for over half a century. Because that is exactly what has happened with America’s churches.
The Johnson Amendment was passed in 1954 because Senator Lyndon Johnson did not like the views of his political opponents. It was a naked attempt to keep the reins of raw power in his own hands and to silence non-profit groups who opposed his reelection because they believed he was soft on communism. Johnson devised a clever way to target these groups, and his amendment to 501(c)(3) of the tax code has since been applied to intimidate churches and pastors across the country into silence on the moral qualifications of candidates and the positions they hold.
Free speech is a fragile thing and it needs breathing space to exist. The power of government can all too easily squelch dissent. In 1926, The U.S. Supreme Court stated that vague laws chill free speech because “People of common intelligence must necessarily guess at [the law’s] meaning and differ as to its application.” What this means is that if the government enacts a vague speech regulation, people will not know where the line is between what is permissible and what is prohibited. Thus, they will “chill” their own speech. Stated more simply, people will not speak at all if there is uncertainty over whether the power of government will come down on them if they say something that might violate the law. This is what we awe seeing first hand with the revelations of the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups. And this has been the problem with the Johnson Amendment and the IRS’ vague regulations enforcing it. The law does not give any certainty over what is allowed and what is permitted from the pulpits of America’s churches. So pastors, concerned that they might say something that would trigger the enforcement power of the IRS (a very powerful government agency), stay silent.
It’s good to shine the light on to the private and devious machinations of the federal government when those occur. But let’s recognize that conservative groups have not been the only ones in the crosshairs of the IRS. America’s churches have suffered for too long under the intimidation of the IRS. The best way to shine the light on that intimidation is to stand in the face of it. That’s why we launched Pulpit Freedom Sunday. And that’s why we hope that if you are a pastor, you will go today to sign up to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. It’s time for the IRS to stop using its power to squelch free speech and freedom of religion of America’s churches.