Pastors across the country will protest Internal Revenue Service restrictions on them not to talk politics in the church as they observe the annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday, days after the introduction of the Free Speech Fairness Act in the U.S. House to reinstate pastors' and churches' rights to speak freely.
"The IRS has no business acting as the speech police of any non-profit organization, as its many scandals over recent years have made clear," said Erik Stanley, senior counsel of the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, which started Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008.
The Johnson Amendment, which Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has vowed to repeal, says non-profits, including churches, cannot speak in favor of political candidates, and the Free Speech Fairness Act, a bill that Rep. Steve Scalise and Rep. Jody Hice, both Republican, introduced in the House Wednesday, would restrict enforcement of the Johnson Amendment against churches and other non-profit groups.
"The IRS doesn't feed the hungry. The IRS doesn't comfort the hurting. And the IRS definitely doesn't heal the broken. A pastor's pulpit should be accountable to God alone, and the future of religious freedom in America depends on it," says the website of the initiative.
"This bill corrects an unconstitutional restriction put in place in 1954 that was never intended to affect churches and other non-profit groups but has been used to intimidate them ever since," Stanley said, in a statement. "By removing the threat of an IRS investigation and potential penalties based simply, for example, on what a pastor says from the pulpit, this bill brings the law into conformity with the First Amendment."
He said no tax exemption can be based on a requirement that a church or any other non-profit organization give up a constitutionally protected freedom, including free speech. "With regard to churches, they can decide for themselves what they should or shouldn't say from the pulpit. Americans don't need the IRS to be the referee."
"Government is asking us to render unto Caesar what properly belongs to God, and we can't do that," the initiative quotes Archbishop Charles Chaput as saying.
"The Bible says render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. But Caesar is demanding more and more of what was once considered God's matter," says Dr. Jim Garlow of California's Skyline Church.
"As a pastor, you have a biblical responsibility to speak to your congregation and help them understand the issues and how they line up with Scripture," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told CNN. "We're simply going down the list of biblical issues like life and human sexuality and marriage and speaking to what Scripture has to say and juxtaposing that with the positions of the candidates."
Pledging to repeal the Johnson Amendment, Trump said last month, "The Johnson Amendment has blocked our pastors and ministers and others from speaking their minds from their own pulpits. If they want to talk about Christianity, if they want to preach, if they want to talk about politics, they're unable to do so. If they want to do it, they take a tremendous risk that they lose their tax-exempt status. All religious leaders should be able to freely express their thoughts and feelings on religious matters. And I will repeal the Johnson Amendment if I am elected your president, I promise. So important."