On Sunday, Sept. 28, the Alliance Defense Fund, or ADF, is planning a nationwide pastors’ revolt to challenge an IRS tax code that has muzzled churches and pastors from expressing opinions on political candidates for over 50 years.
Challenged will be a 1954 change in the code called the Johnson Amendment, after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson proposed the amendment to silence opponents to his second Senate race. Two nonprofit foundations were pouring money into a publicity campaign calling Johnson soft on communism.
There is no legislative history for the Johnson Amendment. According to the scant Senate record, then-Democrat Minority Leader Johnson stood up on the floor and proposed it as an attachment to an existing bill. After Johnson said the bill sponsor was in agreement, the presiding officer simply called for a voice vote. There was no debate.
Johnson was re-elected that year. Democrats won back the Senate majority and made Johnson their majority leader, and the rest is history.
Prior to 1954, churches were free to evaluate political candidates’ positions on moral issues without fear the IRS would revoke their tax-exempt status.
The ramifications to the Johnson Amendment have been sweeping and catastrophic to the mission of the Church.
The Rev. Barry Lynn and his Americans United for the Separation of Church and State rely on this amendment to intimidate churches and pastors from expressing any opinion on any political issues whatsoever.
Many churches and pastors, wanting to live the biblical principle of behaving “above reproach,” have overreacted to avoid criticism or risk losing their tax-exempt status and are today silent on topics this amendment does not even implicate, such as abortion.
Meanwhile, in the half century that has elapsed since this code was enacted, the IRS has only prosecuted one church. This was the Church at Pierce Creek in New York, which sponsored a newspaper ad in 1992 opposing Bill Clinton for president.
But the IRS has remained vague on when a nonprofit might cross the line, adding to the paranoia.
And in 2004, the IRS stepped up nonprofit investigations by creating the Political Activities Compliance Initiative after receiving complaints it was not enforcing or selectively enforcing the code. In 2006, the IRS increased the length of time the PACI committee meets annually.
The IRS refuses to name churches it is investigating.
ADF will challenge one specific part of the code, the prohibition of a pastor to speak from the pulpit about views on political candidates. ADF considers this a violation of a pastor’s First Amendment rights. This has never been challenged in court.
On Sept. 28, approximately 50 pastors the ADF has chosen from volunteers nationwide will preach sermons to provoke the IRS on this point. This would immediately invoke a lawsuit that would find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a press release condemning the plan as “deplorable” and “worldly,” AU’s Lynn stated, “I assume the ADF will provide a list of congregations unwise enough to join this move, and we’ll be ready to report those churches to the IRS.”
Barry, ADF is planning one better – no, two better. It plans to give you and the IRS videotapes of the sermons.
On May 16, the Palm Beach Post posted a good op-ed on ADF’s plan, stating in part:
The government can regulate – and tax – not-for-profit political action committees, but tax-exempt status for religious institutions is based on the First Amendment, not on a law passed in 1954. Congress cannot overrule the First Amendment protection of the free exercise of religion in its effort to regulate other not-for-profits. …
This Supreme Court may well find for the church regardless of the merits of its case.
Pastors and/or churches interested in participating in the Sept. 28 revolt can find more information at ADF’s website.
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