By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Issue for the courts: whether status as 501(c)3 threatens churches
On Sunday, Oct. 7, nearly 1,500 pastors nationwide participated in the Alliance Defending Freedom’s fifth annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a legal effort designed to secure the free speech rights of pastors in the pulpit.
The pastors protested a specific amendment in the IRS code, which limits the ability for churches to endorse political candidates. A number of Brooklyn churches, including Resurrection Church in Sunset Park and Prevailing Word Ministries in Prospect Heights, participated in the event.
The 1954 amendment, dubbed the Johnson Amendment after then-senator Lyndon Johnson who initially proposed it, conditions the 501c3 tax-exempt status of nonprofit organizations, including churches, on the requirement that such entities refrain from publicly opposing or endorsing political candidates.
With the 2012 presidential election being termed by political pundits as the “most important election since 1932,” the Johnson Amendment has a number of clergy people up in arms; so much so that a number of ministers, led by Alliance Defense Fund, organized to fight this tax law by defying it.
During Pulpit Freedom Sunday, participating pastors preached sermons that presented biblical perspectives on the position of electoral candidates. In doing so, “[pastors] exercised their constitutionally protected freedom to engage in religous expression from the pulpit…despite the Johnson Amendment,” says Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund.
“It’s outrageous for pastors and churches to be threatened or punished by the government for applying biblical teachings to all areas of life, including candidates and elections,” he commented.
Others, however, argue that ministers should refrain from announcing their personal candidate choice in an effort to stay true to the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause.
A Bloomberg.com editorial noted that “there is no shortage of political speech in the U.S. If pastors wish to jump into the political fray and openly endorse candidates, they are welcome to do so. Some among their ranks have done all that and more. But to expect fellow citizens to subsidize those activities is a bit much.”
The Johnson Amendment is not cut and dry. The amendment appears to create an illusory difference between the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and its notion of a separation between church and state and speech.
The tax code allows for churches, via their clergy, to take sides on political and moral issues, but the Johnson amendment to the tax code denies the same churches from expressly announcing their support for one candidate over another.
In other words, it is permissible for a pastor to denounce abortions and support tax breaks for America’s wealthy, for example, but he may not state “I support Mitt Romney,” in front of his congregation.
To date, the IRS has not initiated any action against churches that participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.