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Pastors defy IRS in defense of religious liberty

“The freedom of speech and the freedom of religion promised under the First Amendment mean pastors have full authority to say what they want to say,” said the Rev. James Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Church in La Mesa, Calif.

“I tell [parishoners] as followers of Christ, you wouldn’t vote for somebody who was against what God said in his Word. I will, in effect, oppose several candidates and – de facto – endorse others.”

The New York Times reported that hundreds of pastors planned to preach about American politics, “flouting a decades-old law that prohibits tax-exempt churches and other charities from campaigning on election issues. The sermons on what is called Freedom Sunday essentially represent a form of biblical bait, an effort by some churches to goad the Internal Revenue Service into court battles over the divide between religion and politics. … Participating ministers plan to send tapes of their sermons to the IRS, effectively providing the agency with evidence to take them to court.”

“The alliance and many other advocates regard a 1954 law prohibiting churches and their leaders from engaging in political campaigning as a violation of the First Amendment and wish to see the issue played out in court. The organization points to the rich tradition of political activism by churches in some of the nation’s most controversial battles, including the pre-Revolutionary war opposition to taxation by the British, slavery and child labor.

“The legislation, sponsored by Lyndon Baines Johnson, then a senator, muzzled all charities in regards to partisan politics, and its impact on churches may have been an unintended consequence.”

A headline in the Washington Times – “IRS Has No Business Censoring Pastors – First Amendment Supersedes Tax Regulation” – accompanies attorney Erik Stanley’s article, which includes the following:

“To even suggest that any governmental agency or official has the right to punish a pastor because of something he says from the pulpit is not only offensive but unconstitutional. No pastor should ever have to dance around an issue or self-censor his sermon because of an Internal Revenue Service rule. In America, we value everyone’s constitutionally protected right to free speech and free exercise of religion. Nonetheless, there exists just such an IRS rule. It’s known as the Johnson Amendment. Getting rid of it was the motivation behind the Alliance Defense Fund’s fourth annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday, which took place this past Sunday.

“There are 29 categories of organizations considered exempt from federal income taxes under Section 501(c) of the tax code. Yet only organizations that fall within Section 501(c)(3) are subject to the speech restriction of the Johnson Amendment. All of the other categories receive the benefit of exemption from income taxes and can endorse or oppose political candidates if they so choose. Why?

“Organizations are only subject to this restriction because Lyndon B. Johnson inserted this amendment into Section 501(c)(3) in 1954 as a way of silencing two secular nonprofit organizations that were opposing his re-election to the U.S. Senate.

“The Supreme Court stated as far back as 1819 that the power to tax is the power to destroy, and there is no surer way to destroy the free exercise of religion than to tax it.

“The Johnson Amendment foists upon churches an unconstitutional choice: Surrender your constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion to get a tax exemption. Clearly, though, the government is not allowed to condition tax exemption, which is something to which churches are constitutionally entitled, on the surrender of the constitutionally protected right.

“Why, then, do we tolerate allowing the government to condition tax exemption on a church giving up its precious right protected by the First Amendment?

“Free exercise of religion means just that: Places of worship should be free from governmental intrusion and interference. Of all places where the exercise of religion should be free, it should be the pulpit. The government needs to get out of the business of censoring a pastor’s words when he is preaching.”