Free Speech for Churches and Charities: Pass the Houses of Worship Freedom of Speech Restoration Act

Churches and non-profit charities lost their right to free speech 51 years ago when Lyndon Johnson, then a Senator, introduced and forced through a terrible piece of legislation to silence his critics.

As a result, churches and charities have forfeited their right to free speech as the price for exemption from certain taxes under the IRS code, section 501-C-3. If a church or charity violates regulations that prohibit them from “substantial” lobbying or the endorsement of political candidates, the IRS can revoke the group’s 501-C-3 status, and individuals who donate funds to the group cannot deduct these contributions.

It’s time to stop this nonsense and allow church and charities their First Amendment rights.

Jay Sekulow of the ACLJ wrote last fall:

The special power given to the IRS not only stifles the First Amendment rights of pastors and churches, but the IRS has been selective and biased in its enforcement.

The law is flawed, misplaced and a disaster.

The IRS often ignores political involvement from liberals and targets conservative churches and ministers such as the Church at Pierce Creek in New York, which had its tax-exempt status revoked after the pastor placed newspaper ads in 1992 calling attention to then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s position on the critical moral issues of abortion and sexual abstinence outside of marriage.

Religious leaders not only have a constitutional right to address the moral issues of the day; many believe they have a responsibility to do so – especially in the context of political campaigns. And pastors should have the ability to speak out from the pulpit – and support or oppose a political candidate based on where the candidate stands on the issues. Unfortunately, that is not permissible now.

This article from the trade publication for CPA is extremely helpful in defining the limits. It begins:

In 1954, at the height of the McCarthy era, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson sought a legislative route to silence some of his anticommunist critics. Encouraged by Johnson, the U.S. Senate passed a major tax code revision by a voice vote. Although Johnson’s revision was targeted specifically at nonprofit groups that were contesting his seat, churches—which also are nonprofit organizations—fell under the new tax code provisions.

Although the ban excluded churches and other IRC section 501(c)(3) organizations from active participation in the political process, years passed without major incident. Then, in 1992, the religious organization Branch Ministries, Inc. (BMI), purchased a newspaper advertisement urging Christians to vote against presidential candidate Bill Clinton, and the IRS initiated an investigation. In January 1995, the IRS revoked BMI’s status as a section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. By contrast, in the 1994 New York gubernatorial campaign, the IRS chose not to initiate an investigation when Governor Cuomo received vocal support from the pulpit of a Harlem church.

The liberals should want the law changed, as well, since the political axe can swing both ways. As LaShawn Barber writes, the NAACP has been whining about being targeted by the IRS for its political violations.

The social club liberals at the NAACP thought they were above the law. Well, there is no such thing as skin color entitlements when it comes to the IRS and its rules against political activity.

But as the Washington Post pointed out:

The Internal Revenue Service followed “established procedures” in deciding which tax-exempt entities to investigate for possible improper involvement in last year’s political campaign, and there is no evidence that the agency’s decisions were politically motivated, according to an inspector general’s report released yesterday.

The IRS attracted headlines last fall when the NAACP announced that the agency was threatening to revoke its tax-exempt status because its chairman, Julian Bond, had given a speech attacking the Bush administration.

In the early days of the 2004 presidential campaign, the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act was proposed as a means to reverse a portion of the 1954 legislation and to return First Amendment speech protection to America’s churches, synagogues, and mosques. That bill (HR2357) failed to pass the House in October 2002.

In October 2004, a Republican congressman joined African-American clergy and other members of Congress to re-introduce the legislation.

North Carolina Rep. Walter B. Jones enlisted Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) to drum up support for Jones’ bill, the Houses of Worship Freedom of Speech Restoration Act (HR 235).

“There is a muzzle upon the clergy. As ministers, we are obligated to speak about the moral and political issues of the day, and taking away that right is harassment. It is wrong, and it is extortion,” said Clergy United leader Bishop Anthony Muse, who called on the Congressional Black Caucus to back Jones’ bill and to push for its passage. (Source)

The House bill introduced by Congressman Jones, HR 235, was referred to the Ways and Means Committee, where it remains.

It’s time to return freedom of speech to America’s churches and charities by passing the language in HR 235.

About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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