December 12, 2017
Churches used to be where people went to escape the turmoil of the world. Now, with an outbreak of violence, the turmoil is coming to them. A wave of radicalism is boiling over, and America's houses of worship are bearing the brunt. In the three months between January and March, there were more than 100 bomb threats called into Jewish community centers. Arsonists are attacking mosques at a furious rate. And I don't have to tell you what happened at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.
"Unfortunately, our society no longer seems to place the same value on religious belief," Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said somberly. "In fact, it often feels that in this modern society, religion is met with disdain and an attitude of militant secularization. We live in a time where violence and threats of violence are routinely used to scare people from practicing their religious beliefs." As a culture, he went on, "we must make clear that we value this vital right to exercise religious freedom, and do what we can to encourage and foster this faith, for the good of the country. That's why it is important we make clear that threatening places of worship, threatening religious institutions, and deterring good people from practicing their faith and exercising their right to do so, will not be tolerated."
This week, members of Congress put their full force behind his words, passing -- almost unanimously -- a bill called the Protecting Religiously Affiliated Institutions Act of 2017. By a vote of 402-2, leaders from both parties are sending a powerful warning to anyone targeting men and women of faith: you will pay. Specifically, the law would give faith leaders more tools to fight this outbreak of violence, vandalism, and harassment. Threats to property, like bomb threats or anything else that keeps Americans from worshipping, will be severely punished. Congress wants to clamp down on the extremists putting faith in the crosshairs, upping the penalties to three years in jail and thousands of dollars in fines. It's an important policy, but an even more significant message that this Congress won't stand by while evil men try to shake the faith of our country.
We applaud the House for protecting the churches physically -- now it's time to protect their freedom to speak. The secular Left is doing everything it can to keep that from happening, including an impressive takeover of the mainstream media's talking points on the Johnson Amendment. For the last couple of weeks, while Congress deals with the snags in the two tax bills, liberals have ramped up their misinformation machine -- spitting out dire warnings about the supposed effects of letting religious groups speak openly.
Their predictions, that churches will become underground PACs which funnel "dark money" through the process, is being passed off as legitimate journalism in places like CNN (which is apparently less concerned about fact-checking than it is about keeping Christians from engaging in the political process). Liberals scream that this is campaign finance law in disguise, another ridiculous talking point that the authors of the legislation have repeatedly debunked. Under the language of the House's tax bill, nonprofits can use political speech only in the ordinary course of business and with very limited money.
As Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.), House Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) and Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) have explained until they're blue in the face that there is absolutely no way under this bill that churches are suddenly going to become underground party operatives. This is just about leveling the playing field that was tipped more than 60 years ago -- and interpreted by liberal administrations like Obama's as an excuse to go after religious groups with the full weight of the IRS behind them.
If the Senate agrees to the House language, Lankford, Scalise, Hice and Johnson explain, this is what will happen (hardly the stuff of nightmares): "An environmental nonprofit that sends out an e-newsletter educating its readers about the climate positions of candidates wouldn't have to fear an audit. A church employee who distributes election voter guides (for which her church did not incur any cost for distribution) could not be punished by the IRS." Besides, the trio continues:
"The bill also requires that any expenditure related to these activities are de minimis -- that is, only minimal and not outside the usual expenses of the organization -- to ensure that the organization's primary function remains charitable or religious in nature... The criticism that our legislation would subsidize religious organizations' politics demonstrates a double standard for faith-based entities. Leaders and employees of other entities that receive federal funding -- such as hospitals and universities -- are welcome to advocate for political causes and contribute to them. The IRS does not threaten to punish them when they engage in political speech."
Liberals are scared all right -- but not of churches becoming political PACs (a claim even they can't substantiate). What they're terrified of is greater engagement from the Christian community. After last year's election, they understand how influential evangelicals can be, and they'll do anything to keep history from repeating itself. If they can keep pastors from firing up their congregations on moral issues, they think they can limit the churches' influence in the culture. The Framers, John Daniel Davidson points out in the Federalist, would have found this whole idea absurd. "Certainly, the idea that pastors and other clergy aren't allowed to weigh in on elections or political issues from the pulpit would have struck the Founding Fathers as not only strange but inimical to the idea of a constitutional republic (especially since one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon, was a Presbyterian minster)."
"Pastors, rabbis, and imams can't be expected to stay silent on social matters like abortion, gay marriage, and transgenderism -- or, more to the point, stay silent about candidates who espouse views of those matters that are hostile to the teachings of their faith. The same goes for more conventional political matters, such as war, immigration, and welfare. Religion has a lot to say about all those things, and religious leaders have a First Amendment right to speak to their congregations candidly about them -- and about the candidates and officeholders who will make laws pertaining to them," Davidson argues.
This is a priority of the president, as he reiterated to me again yesterday at a meeting with evangelical leaders in the Oval Office -- and it should continue to be a priority of this Congress as it finishes up its work on tax reform. Contact your leaders and remind them that free speech is for everyone.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.