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Preach out and Touch Someone: Killing the Johnson Amendment

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Imagine an America without the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The late civil rights leader almost single-handedly turned the tide against racial segregation in this country — and he did it from the pulpits of churches. Where would we be now, as a nation, if pastors like the Reverend King hadn’t made their voices heard on the cultural issues of the day? Right now, the clergy of America are in that very dilemma, thanks to a vague, 62-year-old piece of the U.S. tax code. Called the Johnson Amendment, it was slipped into an IRS bill a half-century ago without a floor vote or committee debate.

Several years later, even JFK’s successor himself couldn’t dream of the trouble it’s caused. The future president Lyndon Johnson (who was a senator at the time) wanted to use the language as a way to stop his political opponents. But what it’s become instead is one of the single greatest weapons against free speech in America’s churches. In the last several years, liberals have used the amendment to spook pastors away from preaching about moral or political issues — which is well within their constitutional rights to do.

Unfortunately, with the Obama IRS breathing down the necks of nonprofits and religious entities, threatening to take away their tax exempt status, the Johnson Amendment has become just another way for the president to crackdown on pastors’ ability to speak openly about political issues and candidates. “Americans don’t give up their right to speech when they go to work for a church or nonprofit,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s (R-La.) pointed out. “But that’s the legal state of affairs under the Johnson Amendment. It puts the IRS in the position of being both judge and jury on comments made from the pulpit and all speech from nonprofits.” Today, two House leaders aim to change that. At a press conference at the U.S. Capitol, Whip Scalise and Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) introduced the Free Speech Fairness Act — which would give houses of worship and nonprofit groups the ability to talk openly about political candidates and legislation without fear of government punishment.

The bill, H.R. 6195, is a long overdue push to topple the amendment, which GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has made a central issue of his campaign. “We’re going to get rid of that [amendment],” he’s promised. Under this new bill, ministers can make comments about an elected official, someone running for office, or even a key issue as part of his sermon. And even, in some cases include that information in newsletters. What they can’t do is act like a political PAC or c4 organization and launch any sort of direct mail, advertising, or fundraising campaign “solely for political information.”

As I told the reporters at today’s press conference, government bureaucrats should not serve as bouncers at the door of free speech and religious freedom. Dr. King understood the need of a church that could speak freely, writing, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state, and never its tool.” As such the church should not have to gain its authority or approval to speak from the state.” If you agree, contact your House member and encourage him or her to support the Free Speech Fairness Act!

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