Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) this week announced the results of a LifeWay Research poll showing 91 percent of Protestant pastors wanting the ability to speak freely from the pulpit without a chill from government. Moreover, more than 7 in 10 of the pastors wanted Congress to ensure the IRS is not empowered to punish churches based on the content of sermons.
This research buttresses efforts to lift the free speech burden of the infamous “Johnson Amendment,” named for then-Senate Democratic Leader (later to become President) Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) who authored the 1954 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.
The study also calls into question the extent of support for a push by some religious leaders who have told Congress that maintaining the power of the IRS to referee their speech is critical to “protecting the independence and integrity” of their ministries. That effort was spearheaded by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
Regarding the survey, ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb said, “Churches and their pastors have a constitutionally protected freedom to decide for themselves what they want to say or not say. This poll demonstrates that religious leaders don’t want to be burdened by the continual threat of an IRS investigation and potential penalties based simply on what they say from the pulpit.”
While previous LifeWay Research polling revealed significant public opposition to pastors endorsing political candidates in church, most Americans opposed the government threatening a church’s tax status based on such action. "Pastors -- and Americans in general -- don't want church services to turn into campaign rallies," said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. "But when they do address political candidates, they don't believe it is the government's business. There's very strong support for Congress to make sure the IRS isn't policing sermons."
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.
That legislation 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: October 20, 2017