Last week I mentioned secularist attempts to target the tax exempt status of churches after the election. On Sunday, November 12, Reuters published a story by Mary Wisniewski titled “Election Blurring of Church, State Separation Draws Complaints.” The article details letters of complaint to the IRS from the groups Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). Since this time, the FFRF has filed suit, according to an article on their website, against the IRS for allegedly violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because they have not investigated churches who “electioneer” in violation of the tax code pertaining to 501(c)(3) organizations. While the letters of complaint and the law suit target conservative elements of the Catholic Bishops and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Ms. Wisniewski points out in her article that 40% of Black Protestants told the Pew Research Center that they had heard pro Obama messages from their clergy, so this is a bipartisan issue.
These suits bring up an interesting question. Why should the tax exempt status of churches prevent them from speaking out on political issues? Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code was developed to make it easier for charitable organizations to operate by removing tax burdens from them. The idea was that these organizations save the tax payers money by providing services for the needy that the government would otherwise be required to perform.
So why should a tax exempt status based on economic and fiscal efficiencies be used to limit an organization’s right to free speech? The tax code allows other forms of non-profits much greater latitude. Section 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(5) provides tax exempt status for Civic Leagues and Labor Unions, both of which have unlimited ability to electioneer. As it turns out, the original law did not restrict 501(c)(3) organizations from speaking on political issues. The law changed in 1954 when Senator Lyndon Johnson had the code amended to exclude these organizations from participating in or intervening in political campaigns. The amendment targeted 2 non-profit organizations which opposed Johnson’s re-election bid to the Senate. While the amendment was originally aimed Johnson’s political opponents instead of at churches, organizations like FFRF and People for the American Way have subsequently used the amendment to intimidate churches and silence their voice in the political arena. The website for FFRP actually gives guidelines on how to report churches for violating the Johnson Amendment.
A growing number of clergy are questioning the IRS regulations through a movement called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The organization’s website, www.speakupmovement.org, summarizes the goals of the movement as follows. “The purpose of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is to restore the right of pastors to speak freely from the pulpit without fear of punishment by the government for doing what churches do: speak on any number of cultural and societal issues from a biblical perspective. The purpose of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is not – as some have intentionally tried to confuse the issue – about whether pastors should or should not “endorse” candidates. The issue with which Alliance Defending Freedom is concerned is over who regulates what may be said from the pulpit.” This last October 7, 1621 churches joined in the movement, in an effort to provoke a legal review of the law. I highly encourage you to visit the Speak Up Movement’s website and read the summary of their legal arguments, FAQ and article entitled “Common Objections to Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” In addition to providing excellent background, they show how the law as currently configured violates the Establishment Clause, the Free Speech Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.
If you were to read most articles or blogs on the tax exempt status of churches, you would be led to believe that the provisions placed on 501(c)(3) organizations are essential to the separation of church and state. In reality, the provisions were the result of a blatantly political act of censorship by a powerful senator that has since become a tool for radical secularists to silence the voice of the religious in the critical issues of our time. Indeed, as the secular agenda presses against moral issues which have traditionally been the domain of the church such as issues on life and the sanctity of marriage, it is impossible for churches to take a stand on the issues, without taking a position which is “political.” So the FFRP is right in one aspect. It is time to look at the IRS implementation of Section 501(c)(3); it is time to strike down the Johnson amendment.