Legislation Introduced to Lift Burden on Speech

President Donald Trump has directed fire at the infamous Johnson Amendment for months, and this week at the National Prayer Breakfast was no exception. After proclaiming that America “was formed on the basis that freedom is not a gift from government, but that freedom is a gift from God,” the President firmly declared, “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”

In 1954, then-Senate Democratic Leader (later to become President) Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) successfully pushed into law a provision 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.

Notably, Members of Congress this week launched a legislative effort, supported by NRB, to eliminate the shackles of the Johnson Amendment. 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, introduced the Free Speech Fairness Act. This legislation 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 and any expenditures related to them are de minimis. So, while churches and charities would still be prohibited from purchasing ads or making other such targeted political expenditures, the bill would uphold free speech for organizations in the normal course of business.

Applauding the bill, Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, NRB President & CEO, said, “For too long the infamous Johnson Amendment has dangled like a sword above the heads of pastors and ministry leaders, chilling their constitutional free speech rights.” Urging swift passage of this legislation by Congress, Johnson thanked the President and congressional sponsors for their efforts and added, “The Free Speech Fairness Act is a fair and reasonable remedy that will ensure such leaders know they can speak as they feel called without having to worry about the heavy hand of the IRS coming down on them.”

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: February 3, 2017

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