by Bob Unruh
It’s been a rough year or so for the Internal Revenue Service. The agency has been in the news for “losing” key computer records that Congress wants to investigate. There was the scandal over high-level attempts to investigate and intimidate churches. And there were the demands that certain conservative and Christian groups reveal their prayers and promise not to oppose Planned Parenthood.
Oh, and don’t forget the agency’s huge role in collecting funds for Obamacare.
Now, in open defiance of agency rules, thousands of pastors have told their congregations what the Bible says about the positions held by electoral candidates.
As WND CEO Joseph Farah explained in a commentary, Congress was pushed by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas, in 1954 to adopt regulations for the IRS that ban churches from endorsing candidates.
It never should have happened, he said.
“Under the First Amendment, Congress has no power to tax churches. Period. End of story. Under the First Amendment, Congress has no power to stifle freedom of speech. Ever since 1954, the government has unevenly applied its illegitimate oversight of churches – winking as some pastors turn their churches over to political candidates to make stump speeches, while warning others it is inappropriate. There is only one real solution – repeal the Johnson Amendment.”
That’s the goal of pastors who participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an effort the Alliance Defending Freedom.
The annual event, started in 2008, encourages pastors to openly preach on the “biblical perspectives on the positions of electoral candidates.”
They also sign a statement agreeing the IRS should not control the content of a pastor’s sermons.
More than 3,800 pastors already have taken part, including 1,517 who preached Oct. 5 and another 242 who signed the statement. Others participated in earlier events, and the movement is growing weekly.
The ADF explains: “Pulpit Freedom Sunday gives pastors the opportunity to exercise their constitutionally protected freedom to engage in religious expression from the pulpit despite an Internal Revenue Service rule known as the Johnson Amendment, which activist groups often use to silence churches by threatening their tax-exempt status.”
ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley, who heads the Pulpit Freedom Sunday event, said the tax-collecting IRS “shouldn’t be playing speech cop and threatening a church’s tax-exempt status simply because its pastor exercises his constitutionally protected freedom of speech.”
“Pastors and their churches should decide what is said in church,” he said.” The IRS shouldn’t be empowered to censor speech, period. A growing movement of pastors is calling for a solution to this very real violation of the First Amendment.”
“The Johnson Amendment commissioned the IRS to be a ‘speech cop,’ a role it should not have,” added ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “This law was specifically designed to silence public criticism of a politician. That’s clearly in conflict with the First Amendment. Political retribution to protect the powerful has never been the basis of good law.”
The restriction came about because of what Johnson saw as a solution to his own political problems.
In 1954, Johnson was facing opposition in his re-election bid from Christians and anti-communists, some of whom were speaking their minds freely from the pulpits.
Johnson, a powerful figure in the Senate who would later become John F. Kennedy’s vice president and succeed him following the assassination in 1963, had a solution for his own political predicament – to muzzle churches and clergy with federal regulations.
Through what became known as “the Johnson Amendment,” the U.S. Congress changed the Internal Revenue Service code, prohibiting non-profits, including churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
“This most regrettable action has haunted America ever since,” Farah wrote. “Over the last 50 years, America’s churches have been controlled and intimidated by these hideous IRS regulations. They’ve been neutered. I blame the clergy for so timidly falling in line with the illegitimate government restrictions as much as I blame the government.
“But it’s time to recognize the Johnson Amendment was an abuse of the system by a powerful politician who had no respect for the Constitution, for religious freedom and for freedom of speech. Johnson himself, as president, used the illegitimate Fairness Doctrine to target broadcasters who criticized him.
“He was a petty tyrant, and we need not live under the dark cloud of suppression he created back in 1954,” he wrote.
ADF said Pulpit Freedom Sunday began in 2008 with 33 participating pastors.
“ADF hopes to eventually go to court to have the Johnson Amendment struck down as unconstitutional for its regulation of sermons, which are protected by the First Amendment,” the organization explained online.
“A federal agency can’t use tax status as a weapon to force an American to surrender his constitutionally protected freedoms,” Stanley explained. “Churches don’t have to give up their freedom of speech to remain tax-exempt any more than they have to give up their protection against illegal search and seizure or any other protection in the Bill of Rights.”
ADF cited a September Pew Research poll finding “the majority of Americans are concerned that religion is losing influence in American life and believe churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues.”
A short video about Pulpit Freedom Sunday:
ADF points out that before 1954, “there were no restrictions on what churches could or couldn’t do with regard to speech about government and voting, excepting only a 1934 law preventing nonprofits from using a substantial part of their resources to lobby for legislation.”