Since I was a child, every church in which I have served has been unfairly restricted in its First Amendment rights. They have been denied the expression of support for or opposition to particular political candidates or government policies. This gag order on churches was enacted by the Johnson Amendment below the radar of most citizens and has since grown to intimidate every church and church leader for the last 63 years.
In 1954, then-Senator Lyndon Johnson became upset over two Texas non-profit groups that publicly supported his opponent in his bid for re-election. Still holding a grudge about these tax exempt organizations opposing him, then-President Johnson pushed through Congress an amendment to the tax code which made illegal any tax exempt organization’s endorsement of a candidate or involvement in partisan politics. The amendment applies to all 501(c)(3) tax exempt not-profits, but few of them have borne the brunt of the law like America’s churches.
The tax code amendment is not an amendment to the Constitution and has no direct bearing on the First Amendment. However, from the day it was signed, advocates of the so-called separation of church and state have blurred the line between religious rights under the Constitution and this seemingly benign tax law. They have waved the amendment in the faces of three generations of nervous church leaders who worry about jeopardizing their church’s tax exempt status–and rightly so.
As a church leader at one level or another for a half-century, I have many times had to second-guess whether a certain message or action by the church would be considered legal. This should have never been the case in a nation founded on freedom of religion. Our forefathers went to great lengths to craft a Constitution which assured the freedom of all people to practice their faith based on the precepts of their God, not within the confines of a tax code. For the first century and a half after the Constitution was ratified, churches were very involved in the political activity of the day. Pastors recommended candidates to their congregation based on the candidates’ support of biblical truths.
The election of Donald Trump and the Republican majority in both the House and Senate portend a long-awaited return of full First Amendment rights to the churches. Last Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast, the President reiterated a campaign promise by proclaiming, “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.” Of course, the President alone can’t terminate the amendment, but his influence on a Congress already friendly to the idea can probably make it happen.
The purpose of the IRS is to collect and process revenues for the Treasury. But, it has become the “speech police” for churches that should be only subject to the higher authority of the First Amendment and the highest authority of God. If this unfair tax code is not struck down now, we may never see the opportunity again. When the repeal gets to Congressional committee, aggressively keep the lines to your Senators and Representative hot urging them to vote for abolishing the Johnson Amendment.
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