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Politics in the Pulpit

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I urge you to sign and return the enclosed Petitions to Stop the Censorship of America’s Churches to your elected leaders in Congress, and send along with them a generous tax-deductible contribution to the ACLJ.

This is a quote from a letter that I received in late February from the American Center for Law and Justice – ACLJ. Be sure not to confuse their acronym with the American Civil Liberties Union – ACLU. The letter was addressed to my father, a Christian and staunch Republican, who passed away in 2003. Some organizations never update their mailing lists it appears. I had never encountered this organization before and was unaware of their efforts to rescind the IRS provision that prohibits churches from urging their congregants to support a particular political candidate.

Once you become attuned to an issue, it is interesting how often you see it crop up. That same week, Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist, wrote a short piece citing a quote from Donald Trump. Trump noted this same IRS prohibition and in his typical blustery style stated, “So I am going to work like hell to get rid of that prohibition and we’re going to have the strongest Christian lobby and it’s going to happen.” If you are not paying attention yet, start now.

A brief history of this IRS prohibition

The Internal Revenue Code “prohibits intervention in political campaigns by organizations that are exempt from federal income tax under section 501c(3), including religious organizations.”   In order to qualify for this exemption, any non-profit has to meet requirements that include assuring that “No substantial part of the organization’s activities may involve attempts to influence legislation” and that “the organization may not intervene in political campaigns.” As Mehta noted, this includes the ACLU as well as all other non-profits.

Senator Lyndon Johnson introduced the amendment that created this provision in a debate concerning the 1954 Internal Revenue Code. The prohibition was added to the code “without hearings, testimony or comment by any tax-exempt organizations.” There is also no known history to explain the impetus for the Senator’s support of this provision. However, it is interesting that this is the period in our history when the words “Under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance and when business leaders, in opposition to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, started to align themselves with religious organizations and people like Billy Graham. The fear of communism reached an all time high during this period resulting in the McCarthy hearings. In 1987, the provision in the IRS code was actually extended to cover statements opposing political candidates.

However, a religious organization is free to establish a related, but “separately incorporated organization under section 501©(4) of the Internal Revenue Code and that the separate organization could express opinions about candidates and even establish a PAC through which political contributions might be made.” Of course they could not use regular church funds to support this separate organization. But I guess that’s just too much work.

In the latest challenge to this IRS provision in 2012, the U. S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving Catholic Answers, a religious non-profit. In 2004 that organization published a voter’s guide that argued that Sen. John Kerry, who would become the Democratic candidate for President, should not receive communion in Roman Catholic churches. The IRS had previously ruled that its actions violated the law and by declining to hear the case, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld that decision.

In 2002, the House of Representative defeated a bill entitled the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (H.R. 2357) offered by Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) that would have revised the IRS code to remove the current restrictions.

Arguments of ACLJ

So what are the arguments that the ACLJ makes for a change in the law? Not surprisingly, they play the victim card and state that the IRS is only objecting to actions by conservative churches. “Let me be clear: The IRS is not mounting a systematic attack on liberal churches. This is overwhelmingly about censorship of conservatives.” The fact that it is overwhelmingly conservative churches that are violating the IRS provision doesn’t enter into their analysis.

They also confound the issues of speaking about general issues and endorsing specific candidates in the following: “A pastor should be able to speak from the pulpit about morality or the immorality of abortion, the redefinition of the institution of marriage, or other issues – and about the candidates who take a stand on these topics.” The first part is not prohibited, just the latter. It is obvious that the pastors don’t feel that their congregants are smart enough to pick the candidates that match the views of the church – they need it spelled out for them.

ACLJ also states that the prohibition is a violation of the First Amendment. “This law is a disaster. It’s nothing more than targeted censorship. It’s unconstitutional. It stifles the First Amendment rights of pastors and churches.” Let’s take a look at that. The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Nothing in the IRS provision prohibits a religious group from exercising this right. It simply provides that the religious institution, and of course any other non-profit, has to choose between engaging in political activity and therefore not receiving non-profit status, or not engaging in political activity and not paying taxes. It seems like a fair trade-off to me. By the way, no courts to date have sided with any case that claims the IRS provision is a violation of the First Amendment.

Hyberpole is also another characteristic of their plea. “Today, the ACLJ is actively involved in a battle for religious freedom that involves your church – and an outrageous federal law that has put your pastor’s right to free speech in jeopardy by none other than the corrupt and out-of-control Internal Revenue Service (IRS).” Note that there is no prohibition against the pastor as an individual taking a positioning in support of a candidate. Again, want to endorse political candidates? No problem. Just not on the taxpayer’s dime.

Current Legislation

The letter of the ACLJ cites a bill currently before Congress, H. R. 153, which once again attempts to change this provision of the Internal Revenue Code. It is being pushed by Congressman Walter Jones, (R-NC), the same person whose similar bill was defeated in 2002. The summary states “To restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.” Well, you do have to give Congressman Jones credit for persistence.

Implications

The implications of a change to this provision of the Internal Revenue Code are frightening. First, in the Citizens United case, the U. S. Supreme Court rendered a decision that corporations are really people and therefore can contribute to campaigns. We are already seeing vast sums of money spent in our political process by corporate “people.” Next, in their decision in Hobby Lobby, they held that closely-held private corporations (because they are people) can use their “religious” views to block implementation of provisions of the Affordable Care Act to provide certain forms of birth control to employees. If H. R. 153 were to pass, all contributions to non-profits could be used for political purposes. We might as well declare a theocracy and get it over with. I think Canada might be a nice place to emigrate to and you?

 

Karen L. Garst

The Faithless Feminist

 

 

About the Author Karen Garst

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