By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
February 3, 2017
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Who should determine what a pastor says from the pulpit? His own conscience before a Holy God or his government’s taxing authority?
Pastors, who have been silent on social issues for more than 60 years out of fear of the Internal Revenue Service and its widely variant interpretation of the Johnson Amendment, may once again find their voices if Congress approves the Free Speech and Fairness Act. The bill, filed this week in both the House and Senate, would restore free speech to churches, charities and their leaders.
“Dr. Martin Luther King — the greatest ‘political pastor’ in the nation — spoke forcefully from the pulpit about how the issues of the day were to be driven by pastors and the people in pews,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said this week at a press conference. “For the whole of American history, churches have been at the forefront of shaping debate and public policy. That’s where they ought to stay.”
President Trump promised Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast to repeal the Johnson Amendment to allow “representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.” And bill sponsors, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), joined pastors across the nation to speak out about the importance of reclaiming religious freedom.
“The federal government and the IRS should never have the ability to inhibit free speech,” Lankford said. “The Free Speech Fairness Act is needed to prevent government intrusion and suppression of free speech by removing a restriction on speech that has existed since 1954.”
He called the right of free speech and the right to practice “any faith, or no faith,” foundational American values that “must extend to everyone, whether they are a pastor, social worker or any charity employee or volunteer.”
The IRS began curtailing that right through threats and intimidation after then-Senator Lyndon Johnson led the 1954 charge to change the tax code to bar charitable groups from endorsing or opposing a candidate. Historians say he was motivated by his anger at the heads of two non-profits who supported his opponent that year and that Johnson never intended to silence pastors.
Over the years, the IRS has interpreted the Johnson Amendment in a variety of ways, ignoring some pastors who, during Pulpit Freedom Sunday, purposefully flouted the rule in hopes of sparking a legal battle that would reveal the law’s unconstitutionality, but targeting others who tried to obey the law while still influencing the culture.
For example, Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association were both subjects of IRS audits in October 2012, shortly after the evangelistic group purchased ads supporting North Carolina’s Marriage Amendment. Without endorsing or opposing any candidate, BGEA ads urged voters to make their choices based on “biblical values.”
Even municipal governments have used the Johnson Act to try to silence pastors speaking out on social issues. Vietnamese Pastor Khanh Huynh was among five pastors targeted by the City of Houston, who demanded they turn over all of their sermons that addressed homosexuality, gender identity, or the city’s first openly-lesbian mayor.
Having escaped his homeland after the Vietnam War, Huynh said he did not expect religious oppression in the United States.
“When I arrived here, praise God, I came to the free-est country on the face of the earth,” he said at the FRC press conference. He said that freedom was taken away when he was served with a subpoena in October 2014, demanding that he turn over sermons or be fined or imprisoned.
Although opponents of the Free Speech and Fairness Act fear it would turn churches and other nonprofits into political entities, supporters point out that the legislation would not allow 501(c)(3) organizations to purchase political campaign advertisements or to become political action committees. It would also not allow donations to be earmarked for political purposes.
Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said, “I have always strongly advocated that pastors need to engage the culture and speak prophetically to the issues of our day. Ministers who would do their duty to God must be willing to obey this mandate even when it isn’t convenient, even when it causes them hardship. Nevertheless, no preacher should ever have to choose between obedience to God or his government or have to balance between the two. Either we have religious liberty and free speech in this country or we don’t. Pastors need to be free to say whatever they are convicted God wants them to say. Repealing the Johnson Amendment is needed and long overdue.”