WASHINGTON — Members of Congress introduced legislation in the House and Senate on Wednesday that would restore the rights of churches and pastors to speak and advocate politically from the pulpit without fear of their tax-exempt status being revoked by the Internal Revenue Service.
"A preacher should not have to get permission from the IRS to be able to preach to their congregation and that is what has been happening," House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said Wednesday during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol.
Scalise and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., have introduced "The Free Speech Fairness Act," a measure that would amend the Johnson Amendment of 1954. The six-decade old law has effectively threatened churches and other 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations with revocation of their tax-exempt status if they endorse a political candidate.
The measure was first introduced by Scalise last September in the last legislative session just days before pastors and churches around the country participated in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," an annual initiative to get pastors to speak politically from their pulpits and challenge the IRS to take action against them.
"The IRS has hung like a cloud over the free speech rights of so many organizations, threatening to take away their tax-exempt status if they disseminated a message that was important to their congregation. That's not the role of government," Scalise stated. "That's not the kind of separation of powers that exist in the Constitution to allow people to express their religious beliefs."
In addition to Scalise and Lankford, the legislation is supported by a number of their congressional colleagues including freshman Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Southern Baptist Pastor Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.).
"Any nonprofit institution shouldn't have to worry about the IRS watching and monitoring what they say. It's a very simple principle. This allows an individual to have their constitutional rights," Lankford, a former Baptist youth group leader, said. "When you work for a nonprofit organization, you don't lose your right to assembly, you don't lose your right to free press, you don't lose your Second Amendment rights, you don't lose your right to privacy. But for whatever reason, we have said that if you work for a nonprofit organization, you do lose your right to free speech. That's absurd."
Lankford assured that the legislation does not allow churches and nonprofit organizations to engage in political campaigning. According to a fact sheet about the legislation provided by the social conservative advocacy group Family Research Council, the bill protects political activities that fall within the "organization's regular and customary activities, so long as the activities carry out the organization's tax-exempt purpose."
"It takes the IRS standing in the back of a church waiting to see what a pastor says or monitoring a newsletter from some nonprofit organization to make sure that they don't have inconsistent speech. This [bill] is just saying that if you are a nonprofit, you can speak like anyone else in the country. The legislation that Steve Scalise and others have dropped in the House is the exact same legislation that we have dropped in the Senate. It is our goal to be able to move this through to a very basic and hopefully non-controversial conversation. What is controversial about people speaking in America?"
The introduction of the legislation comes after President Donald Trump made it one of his major campaign promises to evangelical leaders. Trump said during the 2016 presidential campaign that he would do what he could to rollback the Johnson Amendment, suggesting that he would sign the Free Speech Fairness Act if it made it to his desk.
Along with the Congress members, a number of pastors and religious freedom activists were present for the roll out of the bill. Pastor Jim Garlow of Skyline Church in San Diego, California, cited statistics attributed to pollster George Barna to assert that 90 percent of pastors believe that the Bible speaks about political issues. However, he said that about nine out of 10 pastors are afraid to speak politically from the pulpit because it is too controversial.
Garlow spoke about the history and original intent behind why former senator and President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Johnson Amendment decades ago, which was in response to two nonprofit groups — Committee for Constitutional Government and the Facts Forum — that opposed Johnson's Senate re-election bid.
"It was July 2, 1954, when Lyndon Baines Johnson, then senator, returned to the Senate angry at Frank Gannett and H.L. Hunt, two businessmen who had opposed him through their not-for-profit corporations. He brought that anger to the Senate in the form of what is known as the Johnson Amendment, which was passed without any discussion and on a voice vote only," Garlow explained. "A chief legislative aide of Sen. Johnson admitted later that they did not have churches in mind at all. They were just ticked off at two businessmen who had opposed Johnson because they thought he was soft on Communism."
FRC President Tony Perkins, a leading proponent of the measure, asserted that the United States would look much different today if it wasn't for the pastors throughout American history who cried out for social justice.
"Since the birth of our nation, pastors and churches have been at the forefront of shaping public policy and debate," Perkins said. "That is where they need to be today. What would America look like today had the Rev. Lyman Beecher [Harriet Beecher Stowe's father], a leading abolitionist, or Dr. Martin Luther King been muzzled by the IRS. It would have been a much, much different country than what we see today."
Although many pastors today don't speak politically from the pulpit, others have and have been "persecuted" for doing so.
Hernan Castano, who pastors a minority church in Houston, Texas, was one of five Houston-area pastors whose sermons were subpoenaed by former Houston Mayor Annise Parker with the threat of fine or imprisonment in 2014 over their opposition to the city's LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance that opened up bathrooms and locker rooms on the basis of gender identity.
"I understand what persecution is because I experienced it myself," Castano said during Wednesday's press conference. "We experienced that in Houston when they subpoenaed our sermons just for speaking on the issues that the Bible speaks about, just for speaking to our congregation. I am here today because I believe that it is not fair to talk about freedom of speech, yet that freedom of speech ends when I stand behind a pulpit. It is not fair to say that there is free speech when government, like the IRS, is monitoring what I speak and say based on the Bible and will intimidate me and make me pay a high price for preaching to my congregation.
"We need to repeal the Johnson Amendment because I have seen the faces of pastors, not only the pastors of big congregations but the pastors of smaller congregations," Costano added. "I have seen the fear of their heart holding them back from speaking truth and I have seen them hold back from what will make a difference for their own people because they do not want the doors of their church buildings closed or their 501(c)(3) removed."