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SENSIBLE, OR “GROWING THREAT TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM?”
by Guillermo Jimenez, Tax Revolution Institute, ©2016
(Oct. 21, 2016) — Tensions between the Internal Revenue Service and the proponents of political speech from the pulpit are beginning to boil over.
While the controversy is decades old, the IRS’s restrictions on the political speech of churches and other places of worship have become a hot-button political issue in 2016.
Recently, pastors who gather each Sunday to protest these restrictions have gained national attention — even coverage from the likes of CNN and others. Their campaign is called the “Pulpit Freedom Movement,” an initiative launched by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which urges church leaders across the country to actively disobey the IRS rules that govern their speech.
The ADF is an Arizona-based nonprofit that, according to the group’s page, was founded in 1994 by “Christian leaders with a mission to reverse the growing threat to religious freedom.” The ADF’s Pulpit Freedom Movement now boasts an alliance of over 4,100 pastors who seek to repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment — the provision of the Internal Revenue Code that bans certain tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
This prohibition was introduced in 1954 by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. Robert Tuttle of George Washington University Law School explains that many senators at the time voted for the amendment out of concern that nonprofit organizations were funding their opponents’ campaigns. However, “because there was little debate over the amendment or how it would influence churches, we don’t know precisely why Congress enacted the amendment,” he notes.
Whatever the impetus, the result of the Johnson Amendment is confusion over the bounds of religious, tax-exempt speech.
Erik Stanley, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, spoke to the Tax Revolution Institute’s (TRI) Fergus Hodgson in July and shared his group’s perspective on how the Johnson Amendment has blurred the issue. “If you don’t know where the line is, and you don’t want to cross it, then you’re going to self-censor and stay back from it,” he said. “You face potential revocation of tax-exempt status and penalties [such as audits], just for speaking from the pulpit.”
Stanley also said that many churches who have been audited by the IRS as a result of their political activity simply “fold up their tents and go home, because they don’t want to mess around with the IRS.” The result is a chilling effect on free speech, according to the ADF, and it is the mission of the group’s Pulpit Freedom Movement to reverse this trend.
“The ultimate goal of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is to restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit without fearing government censorship or punishment,” Stanley told CNN. In terms of the Johnson Amendment’s efficacy, Stanley notes that church leaders prior to 1954 enjoyed the right to speak freely without fear of losing their tax-exempt status and “exercised that right responsibly.”
“Churches were not turned into political action committees and party bosses did not set up shop in the basement of churches,” he said. “Instead, pastors spoke out as they believed their faith intersected with something that was happening in an election. Pastors should have the right to decide that issue for themselves.”
Read the rest here.