Included in a government funding bill this week was a new set of requirements for the IRS to fulfill before utilizing the sword of the infamous Johnson Amendment against a church. The FY2019 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill, passed by the House on Thursday, prevents the IRS from denying tax exempt status to a “church, an integrated auxiliary of a church, or a convention or association of churches” for political action unless the IRS Commissioner makes the determination and notifies congressional oversight committees. Such a denial of status could not be effective for 90 days.
In 1954, then-Senate Democratic Leader (later to become President) Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) took aim at two secular nonprofit organizations through a provision to bar 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.
Earlier this year, the NRB Board of Directors, a body of approximately 100 key leaders among Christian communicators, unanimously approved a resolution calling on “government and ministry leaders to stand against the Johnson Amendment’s chill of the constitutional free speech rights of churches and ministries.” NRB believes the 1954 statute is dangerous to the basic American value of free speech, particularly given its vague and inconsistent application by the IRS.
NRB supports adoption of the Free Speech Fairness Act to provide a carefully balanced statutory remedy. That legislation, authored 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, would provide a solution by clarifying that political statements by 501(c)(3) organizations are permissible, as long as they are made in the ordinary course of an organization’s activities and any expenditures related to them are de minimis.
During consideration of the tax reform bill last November, NRB President & CEO Dr. Jerry A. Johnson countered some organizations that were – and still are – aggressively advocating for continued selective censorship under the Johnson Amendment regime. Johnson then declared, “Let us be clear. The question before us today is not whether or not churches and charities should choose to make political endorsements. The question – in the context of the well-balanced Free Speech Fairness Act – is whether or not the government should be empowered to stifle basic speech.
Johnson added, “Respectfully, nonprofit leaders should embrace liberty and be willing to take responsibility for their own comments freely made in the ordinary course of service to their constituents.”
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations
Published: July 20, 2018