Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church

Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church

There’s a new boss in Washington and new attention being paid to conservative issues, and now Congress is even considering a plan that would restore free speech to church pastors, who were among the targets of a measure initiated by Lyndon Johnson when he fought for re-election to the Senate and wanted to shut up his critics.

That was way back in 1954, when Johnson – upset that a conservative organization was supporting his opponent – forced his censorship plan through Congress.

It restricts the ability of nonprofits, including churches, to make partisan political statements or endorsements.

President Trump expressed concern about the IRS statute during the campaign, and even left-leaning organizations have admitted it is an issue.

The argument for Johnson’s measure is that organizations receiving tax-exempt status from the government should not be permitted to support or oppose candidates for office. But it’s admitted that Johnson likely was motivated by a desire to exact revenge when he sponsored it.

The legal powerhouse Alliance Defending Freedom long has run a Pulpit Freedom Sunday in which it encourages pastors to challenges the rule, but the IRS hasn’t taken the bait to enforce the law and force a court precedent.

But now it’s in front of Congress again.

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On Wednesday, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., introduced into the Senate the Free Speech Fairness Act, which would restore to nonprofits and houses of worship the freedom to speak about electoral activity.

He explained in a website statement: “Specifically, the Free Speech Fairness Act addresses the shortcomings of the Johnson Amendment, which in 1954 was inserted into the Tax Code by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson. The Johnson Amendment prohibits nonprofits and churches from engaging in any activity that might be interpreted as participating in, or intervening in a campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, a candidate for public office, including a simple oral or written statement. During the 2016 presidential campaign, President Trump frequently expressed his desire to fix the Johnson Amendment.

“The federal government and the IRS should never have the ability to inhibit free speech,” continued Lankford. “The Free Speech Fairness Act is needed to prevent government intrusion and suppression of free speech by removing a restriction on speech that has existed since 1954. The First Amendment right of free speech and right to practice any faith, or no faith, are foundational American values that must extend to everyone, whether they are a pastor, social worker or any charity employee or volunteer. People who work for a nonprofit still have constitutional rights to assembly, free speech, and free press.”

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., is sponsor of the companion House bill.

ADF senior counsel Erik Stanley, noted: “Americans don’t need a federal tax agency to be the speech police of churches or any other non-profit groups, who have a constitutionally protected freedom to decide for themselves what they want to say or not say. 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.

“It fixes a restriction enacted in 1954 that was never intended to affect churches and other non-profit groups but has been used to intimidate them ever since. The government can’t base any tax exemption on a requirement that a church or any other non-profit organization surrender a constitutionally protected freedom, including free speech.”

ADF said it has been working to overturn the restriction since 2008. And WND has reported on the public challenge for years.

Thousands of pastors have told their congregations what the Bible says about the positions held by candidates and then informed the IRS of their actions without prompting a reaction.

As WND founder and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Farah explained in a commentary in 2008, Congress was pushed by Johnson to adopt regulations for the IRS that ban churches from endorsing candidates.

“Under the First Amendment, Congress has no power to tax churches. Period. End of story. Under the First Amendment, Congress has no power to stifle freedom of speech. Ever since 1954, the government has unevenly applied its illegitimate oversight of churches – winking as some pastors turn their churches over to political candidates to make stump speeches, while warning others it is inappropriate. There is only one real solution – repeal the Johnson Amendment,” he wrote.

“The Johnson Amendment commissioned the IRS to be a ‘speech cop,’ a role it should not have,” ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb explained when the issue arose earlier. “This law was specifically designed to silence public criticism of a politician. That’s clearly in conflict with the First Amendment. Political retribution to protect the powerful has never been the basis of good law.”

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