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Three reasons everyone should support changing the Johnson Amendment

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Americans who believe free speech from America’s pulpits should truly be free aren’t the only ones who should support changing the Johnson Amendment. Those who think churches should never talk about politics should support changing it as well.

Often, the media and activist groups who oppose efforts such as the Alliance Defending Freedom Pulpit Freedom Sunday movement and the recent Free Speech Fairness Act will cite their belief that churches shouldn’t be involved in politics as the reason for their support of the Johnson Amendment. Under that law, tax-exempt organizations cannot “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

{mosads}But even if you are put off by pastors who talk about political candidates, here are three reasons to support changing the Johnson Amendment:

1.      No government-recognized status can require the surrender of a constitutionally protected freedom

Contrary to the arguments of some, those who support changing the Johnson Amendment aren’t largely those seeking to have some sort of nefarious influence over American politics. Their concern comes directly from the wording of the law itself, which clearly violates the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment when it forbids “the publishing or distributing of statements.” No tax-exempt status—or any other government-recognized status—can ever hinge on the surrender of a constitutionally protected freedom.

To illustrate, when would we ever say that someone can continue to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, cruel and unusual punishment, or the quartering of troops if they simply “give up their tax-exempt status”? The most basic principle of the First Amendment—and of a free society—is that you are always free to offer an opinion on something. This principle is vital no matter what you believe about politics and how people should talk—or not talk—about it.

2.      Freedom means letting congregations, not the IRS, decide whether to talk about politics 

Americans—including religious congregations—can certainly have differing views about whether they should “keep their noses, and crosses, out of partisan politics.” It’s worth noting, though, that the demand that they stay out under the heavy hand of government quite conveniently keeps other people in the discussion while gagging the church through force of law (an Establishment and Free Speech Clause violation if there ever was one). It’s always easier to win a battle when you silence certain voices rather than simply defeat them on the battlefield of ideas.

Although the church has “spoken truth to power” for centuries prior to the passage of the Johnson Amendment in 1954—calling upon civil leaders to lead justly and fairly—it’s nonetheless up to each church to decide for itself whether it wishes its leaders to do this. If a church doesn’t believe its pastor should talk about politics or candidates from the pulpit, it can pass a policy or change its bylaws to prohibit or limit that kind of speech. That puts the decision back where it should be—in the hands of congregations rather than with a taxation arm of the government and its coercive powers. As our nation’s Founders rightly understood: “The power to tax is the power to destroy.”

3.      The Johnson Amendment was never intended to affect churches 

And then there’s the fact that religious congregations were never the intended target of the Johnson Amendment anyway, so making that clarification simply makes sense. Back in the ‘50s, Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded in getting his amendment passed practically in the dark of night and without the normally required debate as a means of quieting his political opposition. Neither he nor Congress had churches in mind at all. The Free Speech Fairness Act, recently introduced into both houses of Congress, changes the law to ensure that it no longer causes a constitutional violation while at the same time ensuring that no organization can call itself a church while actually operating as a de facto political action committee funneling “dark money.”

You don’t have to be a fan of churches talking about politics to see the common-sense need to curb the Johnson Amendment. All Americans can and should support this change.

Erik Stanley is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom and heads its Pulpit Freedom Sunday effort.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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