A Call for Pastoral Support of Free Speech Legislation

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an NRB member that has organized Pulpit Freedom Sunday for nearly a decade, is calling on pastors to sign a letter to Congress urging passage of legislation to lift the free speech burden of the “Johnson Amendment.” Signers of ADF’s letter would say, “Our First Amendment freedoms are not bargaining chips to be exchanged for a tax status.”

At issue is a 1954 provision authored by then-Senate Democratic Leader (later to become President) Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) to stop Section 501(c)(3) organizations from “intervening” in political campaigns. That language has since been interpreted to bar ministers and nonprofit leaders from making political statements at their organizations’ functions or in their publications. In addition to being constitutionally suspect, this rule has been vaguely and inconsistently applied by the IRS, resulting in a chilling effect.

The Free Speech Fairness Act, which NRB supports, would clarify that political statements by 501(c)(3) organizations are permissible, as long as they are made in the ordinary course of the organization’s activities. So, churches and charities could still not purchase ads or make other such targeted political expenditures. However, the bill would unshackle speech by making clear that organizations need not fear expressing views in the normal course of business.

ADF’s proposed pastors letter says, “[O]ur sermons are not ours to render to Caesar; they are ours to render to God alone.” It allows that some may speak on candidates’ positions, and some may never choose to do so. However, the letter signers would say, “we are all united in the firm belief that this is a theological decision to be made by the pastor and church alone—without fear of IRS retribution.”

The Free Speech Fairness Act is sponsored by Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) in the House of Representatives and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) in the Senate. Upon its introduction earlier this year, Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, NRB President & CEO, called the bill “a fair and reasonable remedy.” He said the Johnson Amendment “has dangled like a sword above the heads of pastors and ministry leaders” for too long and urged the legislation’s passage.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: September 29, 2017

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