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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.

Read part 1: Pastors and Politics, here.

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.

Author

ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

557078_10151023030167653_1960289070_nSome time ago, I pondered the question, “Do 84% of Pastors believe the Pulpit Initiative is a bad idea?”  The reflection was due to a  survey conducted in 2011 of 1,000 protestant pastors by Lifeway Research that asked pastors whether they agreed with the statement, ”I believe pastors should endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit.”  The survey reported that 84% of the surveyed pastors disagreed that a pastor should endorse political candidates from the pulpit.  Some bloggers picked up the results and trumpeted them, arguing that they proved that the Pulpit Initiative was wrong and that Alliance Defending Freedom should just give up and agree that it was on the wrong side of public opinion.

I responded to the research (and the critics of the Pulpit Initiative) by stating that Lifeway had asked the wrong question.  The Pulpit Initiative was never intended to answer the question whether a pastor should or should not endorse political candidates from the pulpit.  Rather, it was intended to answer the question of who should make that decision for churches.  Should the government make that decision for churches or should churches make that decision for themselves depending on their own church doctrine and beliefs?

I am happy to report that Lifeway Research conducted another poll of 1,000 pastors and asked the right question.  They asked the pastors whether they agreed with the statement that “The government should regulate sermons by revoking a church’s tax exemption if its pastor approves of or criticizes candidates based on the church’s moral beliefs or theology.”  86% of pastors disagreed with the statement.  That is almost 9 out of 10 pastors who disagreed with the idea that government should be allowed to regulate the content of a pastor’s sermon.  That’s good news.

In the end, the constitutional liberties of pastors and churches are not subject to polls and popular debate.  But the poll results are interesting and demonstrate that pastors “get it.”  They understand that it is not the job of the government to review the content of a pastor’s sermon to determine whether it violates some restriction and is worthy of punishment.  The very idea that some government official can determine whether to mete out punishment to a church based solely on what a pastor says from the pulpit is repugnant and offensive to these pastors.

And, in the end, that is the only question Pulpit Freedom Sunday is intended to answer.  The goal of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is intended to stop the government from acting as the “orthodoxy police.”  As the Supreme Court stated way back in 1943, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in … religion.”

Pastor, if you have not signed up to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday on October 5, 2014, please sign up today.  Become part of the solution and stand with hundreds of other pastors across the country who are reclaiming their ability to speak freely from the pulpit without fearing government censorship or control.

Please share your comments below and to join the conversation join our Facebook page.

Author

ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

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Is your church afraid of the IRS?  I’m not talking about a healthy fear of following the law to avoid the unpleasant consequences of a deserved tax audit.  Instead, I’m talking about a certain level of paranoia that leads to second-guessing  or avoiding actions in your church.  Some churches resort to censoring their own activities out of paranoia over what the IRS might do.  First Amendment lawyers call this a “chill on speech,” because it involves self-censorship to avoid the reach of an overbroad or vague law.

One church in North Carolina recently experienced this chilling effect, although they handled the situation well.  Tabor City Baptist Church puts out a newsletter, and in the most recent edition, printed an invitation for its members to come to a luncheon featuring a candidate for state representative.  Immediately, church members questioned whether the church had violated IRS regulations.  The issue even made it on the local media who came to interview the pastor.  Pastor Bruce Schimdt didn’t back down. He responded to the media, stating: “We are not giving an endorsement as a church, which we’re prohibited to do as a tax exempt organization. But we feel like it’s very very important to give acknowledgement and encourage people to pray and do their civic duty and step up and be involved in the political process… We are honored to pray for and acknowledge our leaders, Democrat or Republican.”

Here’s the point:  under the tax code, this church did nothing wrong.  They made an opportunity available to one candidate that they would also give to any other candidate.  The church’s actions do not violate the tax code and they shouldn’t fear the IRS breathing down their necks with an audit.  Yet, despite the fact that the church did not violate the law, questions were raised by members, the media came calling, and the issue went public.  I am sure the general stress level among the church staff and the membership also rose considerably.  And the overall message was that churches should just stay away from this area because it is simply too dangerous.

Situations like this are precisely why Alliance Defending Freedom created Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  No pastor or church should fear the IRS when they use their faith to engage candidates in an election.  The vagueness of the IRS regulations on churches leads to a very real chill on a church’s speech and activities.  It’s time to remove that chill and allow churches to engage the political realm with their faith without fearing retaliation or punishment by the government.  Pulpit Freedom Sunday aims to do just that – to have the Johnson Amendment in the tax code declared unconstitutional so that pastors and churches don’t have to fear the IRS.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an opportunity for pastors to preach sermons about the election or about the candidates running for office in light of Biblical truth.  If you are a pastor, will you consider signing up for Pulpit Freedom Sunday?  if you are not a pastor, please tell your pastor about Pulpit Freedom Sunday and encourage him to sign up to participate.  Pastors have a right to speak freely on the issue of elections and candidates and should never fear government punishment for shining the light of their faith in this area of life.

 

Author

ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

Erik Stanley’s column looks at the apology the IRS offered for targeted conservative groups, and points out the apology isn’t sufficient because the IRS bullying continues—as it has for nearly 60 years—via the Johnson Amendment.

In fact, the IRS has been exercising that kind of power since 1954 with the Johnson Amendment, which allows it to censor a pastor’s sermon from the pulpit.

The Johnson Amendment prohibits “participating in or intervening in” a political campaign “on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate for public office.” The IRS has interpreted this over the years to say that churches cannot “directly or indirectly” participate in a campaign. Yet there is no definition of what it means to “indirectly” participate in a campaign.

Titled “IRS apologizes, more apologies necessary” – it can be viewed here

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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.

 

Author

ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

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