It was a voice vote that silenced the voice of the church for generations.
In 1954, then-Senator Lyndon Johnson was in the middle of a particularly bruising re-election battle. Two nonprofit groups had been especially troublesome to the senator, vocally opposing his candidacy.
So, on a hot summer day in Washington, D.C., Johnson slipped an amendment into the IRS 501(c)(3) code that governs nonprofit organizations in order to restrict their speech -- including the speech of churches. Johnson’s amendment stated that nonprofits could not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing and distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.”
The penalty for such “participation”? Revocation of their tax-exempt status.
Without debate, the Senate held a quick voice vote on the amendment. As the chamber filled with a chorus of “Ayes,” the church became infected with an instant case of laryngitis, thanks to the Senator from Texas.
Before the Johnson Amendment, churches had a strong and vibrant voice in our political and cultural discourse. Their speech was not muzzled, and the church played an important role in speaking out and shaping public opinion on issues such as slavery, women’s rights, child labor, and civil rights.
However, since the passage of the amendment, the IRS has steadfastly maintained that any speech by churches about candidates for government office, including sermons from the pulpit, can result in the loss of tax exemption. Even though the IRS has never revoked the tax-exempt status of any church that has violated the amendment, it has had a chilling effect on the free speech of pastors across the nation.
It’s now time to ask the question: Who decides what the church can and cannot say?
Should it be the government? Or should it be the church?
The Alliance Defense Fund looked into the history of the Johnson Amendment and came to the conclusion that the church, and not the government, should determine whether or not it should support a political candidate or speak out on an important moral issue.
ADF concluded that the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional because it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by requiring the government to excessively and pervasively monitor the speech of churches to ensure they are not in violation of the amendment. It violates the Free Speech clause of the same amendment since it requires the government to discriminate against speech based solely on its content and makes a tax exemption conditional on speech. Finally, it violates the Free Exercise Clause because it substantially burdens a church’s free exercise of religion.
ADF is not arguing that churches should act like political action committees, or that pastors should routinely endorse or oppose candidates. What they are saying is that while many pastors and other church leaders may choose not—for various reasons—to talk about political issues from the pulpit, that should be their decision, not the IRS’s.
I agree with ADF. Decisions about what is preached from the pulpit of a church should not belong to the government but to the individual pastor and church itself. That is why I support Pulpit Freedom Sunday, to be observed on Sept. 26, in which pastors across America will take a courageous stand and boldly challenge the IRS’s restrictions on their freedom of speech when it comes to political candidates and issues. If the IRS threatens their tax-exempt status, ADF attorneys will file lawsuits on these pastors’ behalf with the hope that they will eventually lead to the Johnson Amendment being declared unconstitutional. ADF believes that if these cases ever come to trial, this will be the likely result.
Many Christians have an understandable fear of the overuse of litigation. But that does not prevent Christians from making appropriate use of litigation when warranted. The approach ADF is using is simply the only realistic way to have an unconstitutional IRS rule removed from the books when the IRS won’t do it on its own. Far from being a rash project put together by people eager to engage in litigation, this approach has been painstakingly thought out. It is the wisest and most effective course—indeed, the only one that has promise.
So take the occasion this week on Pulpit Freedom Sunday to celebrate the freedoms we enjoy and resolve never to weaken, never to be intimidated, and never to back down. As those of us who signed the Manhattan Declaration have affirmed, “We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's.”
Chuck Colson is the founder of BreakPoint and the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
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