February 10, 2017
The First Amendment according to liberals: "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech -- except when it comes to pastors and churches." Of course, that's not what the Constitution says, but the Left's done a great job pretending it does! The fact of the matter is that Christians -- or any believers -- don't check their free speech at the parking lot of their church. And the same is true of pastors. Their rights don't disappear the second the pulpit mic goes live.
Unfortunately, that's what many pastors who speak out on the moral issues of the day have been led to believe by anti-Christian zealots using the threat of an IRS audits or loss of tax exemption. For the last several years, that's been the unintended effect of the Johnson Amendment, a 63-year-old piece of the U.S. tax code. Under the liberal administrations like Obama's, the measure has become just another way for the Left to crack down on pastors' ability to speak openly about political issues and candidates. That was never its intent, as conservative religious organizations like FRC and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) have argued for the last couple of decades.
And now, after years of IRS intimidation, working with Congress and President Trump, we're ready to do something about it. Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.), House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), and Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) think its high time someone clarified the law -- which is exactly what their Free Speech Fairness Act aims to do. Instead of abolishing the amendment, it fixes it so that the IRS can't be used as a club to beat believers over the head. As ADF's Erik Stanley explains for the Wall Street Journal, "The Free Speech Fairness Act would get the IRS out of the speech-police business while prohibiting political expenditures or contributions by tax-exempt organizations. It would provide a relief valve for speech by allowing all charities to speak on political issues, as long as the speech is done in the course of carrying out the group's regular activities. Because the bill doesn't allow for political contributions or expenditures, dark money can't flow through exempt organizations to campaigns." In other words, churches would still be barred from acting like a political PAC or directly influencing elections, but they could talk openly about the values and positions of certain candidates or campaigns.
But not everyone is excited about ending this era of selective censorship. Editors at the Charlotte Observer did their best to muddle the issue in a piece that openly distorts the debate to score political points. "If there is a problem with religious speech, it isn't that faith leaders are muzzled -- but that their speech is too frequently subsidized by the taxpayer despite the Johnson Amendment. Rather than eliminating the Johnson Amendment, federal officials need to start enforcing it with more vigor." That's a ridiculous assertion, as FRC has countered before. "Contrary to an argument made frequently by liberal critics of the church tax exemption, the exemption is neither sponsorship of religion nor a subsidy for churches. In Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York (1970), Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that 'the grant of a tax exemption is not sponsorship since the government does not transfer part of its revenue to churches but simply abstains from demanding that the church support the state.'"
At its core, this is driven by the Left's collectivist view that the government owns everything -- and out of generosity allows us to keep what it determines is equitable. On the contrary, our freedoms come from God and God alone. As I said Saturday on CNN, the church predates our government. It was because of the church and the desire for freedom that our government was in fact birthed. Like others in the media, the Observer's editorial is just further evidence of the discredited press fearful of its growing irrelevance. There was a time in this country, not too long ago, when people looked to the pulpit and not the press to gain a better understanding of how to deal with the events of the world around them. While changing the Johnson Amendment won't correct that overnight, it will hopefully at least put us on a path toward Bible-believing and preaching churches led by pastors who fear God more than man to once again preach the whole counsel of God and give direction to the nation.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.