An important moral voice in American public life was muzzled in 1954, and we are still paying the price.
Before 1954, pastors of churches were free to speak out about candidates and political issues whenever they thought it wise to do so, and many did. But in 1954, Congress amended the Internal Revenue Code to restrict the speech of non-profit organizations. This amendment – spearheaded by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas – required churches to refrain from promoting or opposing any political candidate by name. Apparently Johnson had proposed the amendment to "get back" at two non-profit organizations that had vocally opposed his candidacy. His amendment passed on a voice vote without debate.
Since that time, the IRS has insisted that any speech by churches that deals with candidates for political office, including a pastor's sermon, could result in a church losing its non-profit, tax-exempt status. This law has suppressed the valuable moral guidance that American pulpits could be contributing to our political process.
However, the IRS has never actually followed through on their threat to revoke a church's tax-exempt status! I think there is a reason for that: They know that the law is unconstitutional.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Christian legal defense organization, has recently questioned the validity of this IRS policy because they believe that the policy is an unconstitutional violation of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. ADF attorneys believe the Johnson amendment violates the freedom of religion found in the First Amendment by requiring government to excessively and pervasively monitor the speech of churches. By restricting the content of sermons it places a significant burden on a church's ability to exercise its religion.
The Johnson amendment also violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment because it requires the government to discriminate against speech because of its content. In other words, some speech is allowed, but other speech is not. The U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated this type of speech discrimination for decades. The amendment also violates the Free Speech clause because it conditions the receipt of a tax exemption on refraining from certain types of speech.
ADF is not recommending that pastors should routinely endorse or oppose various candidates in political elections. Many pastors might decide never to do this. But whose decision should it be? There may be times when the moral and religious issues on which candidates differ are so blatant and so clearly supported or opposed by biblical principles that pastors should have the freedom to speak out on various candidates when they believe it is wise for them to do so. The pastor, with wise counsel from mature leaders in the church, should be the one to make that decision. It should not be made by the government.
Last month, on Sept. 26, ADF sponsored the third "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" to directly challenge the Johnson amendment. Dozens of pastors across America preached sermons publicly endorsing or opposing specific candidates and stating from the pulpit why there are biblical and moral grounds on which to base these positions. As in previous years, many of the sermons were then sent to the IRS with a notification that it was the intent of the pastors to challenge the Johnson amendment!
Some Christians might object to intentionally disobeying the IRS regulation in this way. After all, the Bible tells Christians, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities" (Romans 13:1), and therefore Christians generally think they should obey the laws. But in this case, I think these pastors are obeying Romans 13:1. They are being subject to the authority by using the proper legal process to appeal to the highest authority in the land, the Constitution. Because of the peculiar status that tax law has in the United States, bringing such a "test case" is the only effective way that ADF lawyers can challenge the constitutionality of such an IRS rule.
ADF hopes that the IRS will follow through and try to revoke the tax-exempt status of one of these churches. If the IRS does so, ADF will immediately file a lawsuit to test the constitutionality of the Johnson amendment. If this ever comes to trial, ADF attorneys are confident that the amendment will be struck down as unconstitutional.
I agree with this effort and support ADF and these pastors in this challenge. The government should not be dictating to pastors and churches what they can and cannot preach about. Because of the Johnson amendment and an entire atmosphere of fear and excessive caution that have surrounded it, the crucial voice of the church in society has been muzzled for too long. It is time for the courts to overturn this law in accordance with the ringing declaration of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech."