Robin Smith / February 6, 2017

Let’s Get Government Out of Our Churches

Repealing the Johnson Amendment is a good first step.

Last Thursday, President Donald Trump opined, “It was the great Thomas Jefferson who said the God who gave us life gave us liberty. Jefferson asked, ‘Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are a gift from God?’ Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs.” Trump reasoned, “That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”

On the night before the National Prayer Breakfast where Trump made these remarks, the fit-pitching full-time agitators of the Democrat Party wailed about a conservative speaker hosted by the College Republicans. They set fire to the University of California, Berkeley campus, engaged in physical attacks and smashed in windows.

Sure — there’s no cause for concern and no need to stand up for the freedom of speech, right?

With sarcasm out of the way, what exactly is the Johnson Amendment and why is it relevant to today’s discourse?

It’s a 1954 law enforced through the U.S. tax code by the IRS prohibiting all 501©(3) organizations from opposition or endorsement of political candidates. In essence, a church, a charity or a non-profit organization may have its tax-exempt status revoked if campaign activity for or against a candidate occurs. The IRS website currently proclaims, “Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

According to then-U.S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the reasoning behind the law’s origin was to seek protection from two Texas non-profit organizations, not churches, that supported a rich primary opponent for the Lone Star Democrat. Serving as the U.S. Senate’s minority leader, Johnson reasoned that if you’re not willing to pay taxes, you shouldn’t be permitted to engage in political activity.

Hmm, why does that apply only to non-profits and not individuals, we wonder?

Over the years, enforcement of the Johnson Amendment has been, one might say, interesting. With some churches affiliated with leftist politics, opening their doors to candidates, causes and speakers on the national political stage elicits no penalty or warning. An August 2016 Pew Research study revealed: “Among black Protestants who have been in church recently, roughly three-in-ten (29%) have heard clergy speak out in support of a candidate — mostly Hillary Clinton.” Conversely, “just 4 percent of white evangelicals reported having heard their clergy speak in favor of a presidential candidate (2 percent each for Trump and Clinton).”

Equal application of the law, right? And why are some churches compliant and others not?

As recently as 2014, the Johnson Amendment was used by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an overzealous anti-faith group, to pressure the IRS to adopt new parameters to audit churches for election or political activity. Understand the FFRF is anti-Christian and anti-Jew, so don’t be misled to believe they seek neutrality.

Information released by the IRS around this 2014 tightening of enforcements shows that 99 churches were designated as “high priority examination” by the IRS’ “Political Activities Referral Committee.” Remember, too, the IRS scandal that exposed intentional targeting of conservative groups, pro-Israel groups and pro-traditional marriage groups during the Obama administration prior to the 2012 presidential election?

With proof that the Johnson Amendment is already selectively enforced, does anyone else flinch at the IRS or any government entity determining the appropriateness of religious activity within a house of worship?

If one doesn’t believe that government already attempts to censor speech, simply look to Houston, Texas in 2014 where its mayor issued subpoenas demanding copies of sermons to screen for language opposing her referendum regarding gender identity and homosexual rights. Then, peek over to the state of Georgia’s firing of a public health physician who serves as a lay pastor in April 2016. The state’s attorney general, as part of the doctor’s lawsuit against the state, demanded that the fired black lay pastor “please produce a copy of [his] sermon notes and/or transcripts.” The government wants to review the sermons on “health, marriage, sexuality, world religions, science and creationism.”

Regarding the potential repeal of the Johnson Amendment, Trump’s pledge will be disdainfully disqualified by the national media. Further, the Left will mock Christian claims that their speech is under attack. And, yes, even some on the political center-Right will become squeamish to the idea of tearing down that non-existent “wall of separation” that was only erected by secularist activism, not the U.S. Constitution or any founding document.

Congress will be needed to make changes to existing law or codify protections through new legislation. One such possibility is the “Free Speech Fairness Act,” which amends the IRS Code that permits speech or activity that would be considered political as long as those acts were made within the “ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities” and has “an insignificant” cost.

While much focus is directed to churches, the 501©(3) designation applies to charities and non-profits organizations as well. There are merits to the concerns that the vast number of organizations enjoying this tax-exempt designation will become a greater force within campaigns. There are also legitimate concerns that houses of worship will maintain their sacred commitments of ministry and devotion to the holy teachings.

Nonetheless, the weight of evidence, if examined with intellectual honesty, demonstrates that the Johnson Amendment has been effectively used to diminish the speech of voters whose God influences their politics versus those whose god is their politics. Let’s encourage the protection of the First Amendment right for all with minimal government intrusion.

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