The IRS Wants to Remove Freedom of Speech from Churches

In 1789, when the US Constitution took effect, the First Congress already had been assigned a job. During ratification, the states took cognizance of human nature and insisted on a Bill of Rights. The Framers of the Constitution all assumed that powers not given to the federal government in the Constitution remained with the states and with the people, but across the country, people recognized that some things needed to be more clearly stated. Many could envision a situation in which a rogue president or judiciary or even a rogue Congress might assume powers that were not intended. The first job of the new Congress was to pass a series of amendments which had been demanded by various states as conditions for ratification.

People who love liberty easily recognize the First Amendment to the Constitution as the most important of all. A nation in which people cannot speak freely, a nation that forbid citizens to choose, change or reject religion at will or a nation where the press is compelled to print the government line is not a free nation. History shows that even with written guarantees of these freedoms, the natural human desire to control other people makes it essential for the people to have recourse to a limit on government power to control speech, religion and the press.

Today, right now, this minute, these freedoms are under assault by a federal government that has lost its way. Almost anyone could name some incidents that represent threats to these freedoms, but recent news makes it obvious that a truly potent and dangerous threat to both freedom of speech and free exercise of religion is underway. In recent news it has been made known that the IRS is being encouraged to pay more attention to what pastors say from the pulpits of churches.

Pastors who feel that their call is to serve Christ, not the IRS, will respond to such scrutiny by saying that Christ compels a pastor, or any other Christian, to teach people what the Bible says. If the Bible teaches something in conflict with popular ethical trends, the pastor who obeys God, not people, will speak of this problem. If an election is imminent, and pastor wants to help his parishioners know which candidates have committed to biblical teaching and which have not, that pastor will speak.

Astonished Christians who always thought that freedom of speech and freedom of religion were fundamental truths of life in the USA will find it quite disconcerting to discover that the IRS is even contemplating any infringement on those freedoms. It all came about because of a lawsuit by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. In 2012 the FFRF sued the IRS for alleged failure to monitor speech in churches. The lawsuit revealed that no process existed for such monitoring, even though according to the FFRF, such monitoring is required by the Johnson Amendment (1954) to the tax code. That amendment made it an infraction of federal law for a 501(C) 3 organization to endorse a candidate during an election. The FFRF alleged that when pastors encouraged their members in churches to vote for specific candidates or to support specific political issues such as right-to-life, the churches were in violation of the law. The lawsuit was settled out of court, and the IRS subsequently teamed up with FFRF to devise a plan to monitor political speech in churches.

The title of this post properly should be “The FFRF Wants to Remove Freedom of Speech from Churches.” Over the years since 1954, the IRS chose not to attempt to find out what was said from the pulpits of churches. This policy assumed that unless someone complained, there was nothing to find out. Only under pressure that arose because of the FFRF lawsuit did the IRS even contemplate monitoring the speech of pastors in churches. It should be noted that churches are not required to apply for 501(C) 3 status in order to be tax exempt. The very fact that a church is a church makes it tax exempt according to the federal tax code. However, some churches do apply for that classification for a variety of reasons not relevant to this post. The Johnson Amendment does not affect those that do not apply for 501(C) 3 classification.

The crux of the matter is whether the Johnson Amendment truly prevents a pastor from endorsing a political candidate. The real question is whether any law can trump the First Amendment right to free speech. Maybe a better way to ask the question is to ask, what compelling government interest is so compelling that the government could muzzle a citizen who wanted to participate in the public discussion of candidates or political/ethical issues? Why would it make any difference whether the citizen spoke from the pulpit or on a television show or on a street corner?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation contends that when a pastor endorses a political candidate or endorses a view on a political issue while speaking from the pulpit of a tax-exempt church, he is engaging in prohibited speech. The 1954 Johnson amendment says that a 501C3 organization is “prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”(quoted at Wikipedia from 2012-08-14) A thinking person must ask how Congress even presumed to pass such a law. Citizens do not lose their citizenship by joining a non-profit organization. The First Amendment is a guarantee of freedom for citizens, and it actually prohibits Congress from prohibiting free speech. How did anyone persuade any member of Congress to vote for the Johnson amendment?

Some voices say that churches should be safe from scrutiny if they choose not to file for 501C3 status. Nothing really guarantees that safety, of course, and nothing actually prevents Congress from passing a broader law in the same spirit as the Johnson Amendment. Citizens who contend that the intent of the First Amendment is to protect the freedom of every citizen at all times to engage in public discussion of candidates and issues find the Johnson Amendment to be an unconstitutional limitation on free speech. The amendment has never been challenged in court, but perhaps it should be. On what basis? On the basis that a citizen does not abdicate his right to free speech by speaking from a pulpit or within the confines of any other non-profit corporation.

Some Christians will find it troubling to think that they might hear a sermon on Sunday advocating that they vote for a particular candidate. They might feel that sermons about political candidates are inconsistent with their definition of preaching and worship. This is an entirely different question. If members of a church hire a pastor to preach and they are not satisfied with his work, they are free to hire someone else. It is no business of the IRS to tell them whether to keep their pastors or not. How they choose pastors, retain pastors, and dismiss pastors is completely within the domain of church rule and processes. This author does not advocate that churches require or forbid their pastors to preach on politics. This author believes each church must manage that decision according to its own policies.

However, this author does read the First Amendment as declaring that the government has no right to forbid pastors to preach about politics. This is because the First Amendment gives every citizen the right to speak on politics, religion, personal values, and misconceptions about what science has proved, among other things. If the church members want the pastor to help them understand how biblical teaching is to be applied in their understanding of contemporary political issues, then the government needs to leave the church and the pastor alone. The application of biblical teaching is a legitimate function of Christian preaching. The discussion of political candidates and issues is a legitimate activity of a citizen. The First Amendment clearly states that people have the right to have opinions on these matters and to express their opinions to whoever will listen.

This author believes that no citizen should be denied free speech just because he or she is speaking in the context of any tax-exempt organization. This author believes that the First Amendment forbids the federal government from controlling speech anywhere, including within the boundaries, physical or organizational, of non-profit organization of any kind. If the First Amendment means that citizens have the right to speak, then the Johnson amendment is actually unconstitutional.

The freedom to speak truth everywhere at all times is precious. The freedom to vote requires the freedom to speak of candidates and issues that are subject to the vote. Suppression of such speech is completely inconsistent with a free society.

Freedom to speak, to have opinions, and to make choices is precious. People have died for the lack of it. The government has no legitimate reason to stifle free speech anywhere, especially not in churches where truth is an honored and treasured commodity. Especially not anywhere. The bar for justification of the suppression of free speech should be higher than any normal person’s head. It ought to take extraordinary effort to justify such a thing.

What do you think?