Religious Leaders Group Wants Restrictions on Speech

Last month thousands of religious leaders called on Congress to protect a law that constrains their speech. In a letter organized principally by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), these leaders from across the country argued against “any effort to repeal or weaken current law that protects houses of worship from becoming centers of partisan politics.” They indicated that maintaining the “Johnson Amendment,” which empowers the IRS to be a referee over their speech, is critical to “protecting the independence and integrity” of their ministries.

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 AU and BJC press release announcing their letter included statements of support from select leaders. Among them was Rev. Velda Love of the United Church of Christ, who said, “I support educating members of churches about the political process, registering people to engage in the political process, and making their vote count. I am against using churches as fundraising vehicles.”

Congress is actually considering a legislative fix for the Johnson Amendment that would seem to address this very concern. 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.

Notably, the AU/BJC-led letter makes a statement with which, according to a 2015 Lifeway Research poll, nearly 80 percent of Americans, including many in the pews, may be sympathetic. “We must not allow our sacred spaces to be transformed into spaces used to endorse or oppose political candidates,” the letter signers said. However, rather than placing the responsibility on faith leaders themselves to freely decide how to honor their posts, these ministry heads appear to prefer potentially heavy-handed federal government oversight.

In the context of a relevant court battle against the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Daniel Blomberg, a legal counsel at Becket, offered a different view last week. He said, “While Americans have good-faith disagreements about religion and politics, we should all agree that the taxman has no business telling religious leaders what to say during worship services.”

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: September 1, 2017

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