Every election cycle makes one thing abundantly clear: the Johnson Amendment is chilling the speech of churches, tax-exempt organizations, and their leaders. The Johnson Amendment was introduced by Lyndon Johnson in 1954, after he was elected to the Senate despite a tax-exempt organization urging his defeat. This amendment was passed without any debate and was hidden in a larger tax package. The Johnson Amendment prohibits tax-exempt organizations from participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.
The IRS enforces the Johnson Amendment, but has been inconsistent in its application of the law. It has imposed fines and penalties against exempt organizations only to later refund the fines. The IRS has even neglected to provide guidelines to help tax-exempt organizations better understand when they would run afoul of the Johnson Amendment. Because of the inconsistent approach in enforcing the Johnson Amendment, it has had the unconstitutional effect of chilling speech, particularly the speech of pastors.
That is why one Sunday a year -- Pulpit Freedom Sunday -- pastors across the country preach directly and scripturally about candidates and encourage their church members to exercise their stewardship responsibility to be salt and light in the election process. This year, Pulpit Freedom Sunday is October 2nd.
Though Pulpit Freedom Sunday events have been occurring for about a decade, none of the churches that have participated have had their tax-exempt status revoked. One goal of the effort has been to attract a lawsuit where the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment could be challenged in court. However, the IRS has not revoked the tax-exempt status of any of these churches. Despite the IRS's inconsistent enforcement, hostile anti-religious freedom organizations send letters threatening churches with the Johnson Amendment claiming if they engage in any political speech, they will lose their tax-exempt status. Therefore, we need Congress to act.
The good news is Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Representative Jody Hice (R-Ga.) have introduced the Free Speech Fairness Act of 2016 (H.R. 6195) to restore the First Amendment free speech rights of pastors and tax-exempt organization leaders. The Free Speech Fairness Act would allow tax-exempt organizations to engage in political activity so long as it is essentially cost-free, and is made in the ordinary course of the tax-exempt organization's regular activities. Basically, the Free Speech Fairness Act allows tax-exempt organizations to discuss political issues without allowing them to buy political campaign ads, and is a desperately needed fix for the unconstitutional Johnson Amendment. This is where we need your help. Please contact your Congressman, and urge him or her to co-sponsor the Free Speech Fairness Act of 2016 to protect the rights and freedoms of churches, charities, and their leaders.