The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

You can’t say that in church: all about “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”

If you wonder why churches cannot endorse political candidates, Chuck Colson explains — and explains what some preachers may be doing about it this Sunday:

2132006385_0c2833ae3a.jpgIn 1954, then-Senator Lyndon Johnson was in the middle of a particularly bruising re-election battle. Two nonprofit groups had been especially troublesome to the senator, vocally opposing his candidacy.


So, on a hot summer day in Washington, D.C., Johnson slipped an amendment into the IRS 501(c)(3) code that governs nonprofit organizations in order to restrict their speech — including the speech of churches. Johnson’s amendment stated that nonprofits could not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing and distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.”

The penalty for such “participation?” Revocation of their tax-exempt status.

Without debate, the Senate held a quick voice vote on the amendment. As the chamber filled with a chorus of “Ayes,” the church became infected with an instant case of laryngitis, thanks to the Senator from Texas.


Before the Johnson Amendment, churches had a strong and vibrant voice in our political and cultural discourse. Their speech was not muzzled, and the church played an important role in speaking out and shaping public opinion on issues such as slavery, women’s rights, child labor, and civil rights.

However, since the passage of the amendment, the IRS has steadfastly maintained that any speech by churches about candidates for government office, including sermons from the pulpit, can result in the loss of tax exemption. Even though the IRS has never revoked the tax-exempt status of any church that has violated the amendment, it has had a chilling effect on the free speech of pastors across the nation.

It’s now time to ask the question: Who decides what the church can and cannot say?


Should it be the government? Or should it be the church?

The Alliance Defense Fund looked into the history of the Johnson Amendment and came to the conclusion that the church, and not the government, should determine whether or not it should support a political candidate or speak out on an important moral issue.

ADF concluded that the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional because it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by requiring the government to excessively and pervasively monitor the speech of churches to ensure they are not in violation of the amendment. It violates the Free Speech clause of the same amendment since it requires the government to discriminate against speech based solely on its content and makes a tax exemption conditional on speech. Finally, it violates the Free Exercise Clause because it substantially burdens a church’s free exercise of religion.


ADF is not arguing that churches should act like political action committees, or that pastors should routinely endorse or oppose candidates. What they are saying is that while many pastors and other church leaders may choose not–for various reasons–to talk about political issues from the pulpit, that should be their decision, not the IRS’s.

Colson then explains “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”. Check it out.

Comments read comments(22)
post a comment
todd cook

posted September 25, 2010 at 2:40 pm

because people that go to church all have a different opinion and beleifs etc. on candidates the pastors, preachers should not give their opinion at the pulpits. they can talk off the pulpits to their congregations in private about what they think, believe, etc. how they are voting etc.. that’s the way they are probly doing it now anyway. i would think.

report abuse

Michael Marino

posted September 25, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Yet knowing if a person running for office or that is in office is actively doing things that violate the tenants of our faith or seeks to suppress the right to express our faith, that should not be muzzled. Yet this very law does exactly that. It was put into place for the benefit of politicians to silence what they saw as a threat to their control of what social issues they where willing to deal with. The ADF is right to challenge and seek the repeal of the law.

report abuse


posted September 25, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Colson and his ilk are afraid that they may actually have to pay a penalty for indulging in pulpit driven hate speech aimed at gays/non christians/anyone who disagrees with them. Colson is a convicted felon who makes a living out of crying “Persecution!!!”, every time someone calls out a fundie for bigotry or gross public stupidity.

report abuse


posted September 25, 2010 at 7:26 pm

The better question is why churches should be given such blanket tax-exceptions in the first place. When a church is buying and selling real estate, betting with hedge funds, etc., why should that activity be tax-free? Shouldn’t they pay their own way for police and fire protection? Do their members arrive on jetpacks or do they use public roads that need public money for maintenance? The only justification is that they provide some benefit to the public at large, similar to charities, scientific research institutes, etc. Once they become partisan that justification evaporates.

report abuse


posted September 25, 2010 at 8:31 pm

„Die ich rief, die Geister, / Werd’ ich nun nicht los”
And this is precisely the problem which we now confront in churches which refuse to accept the separation of church and state.
Everyone who thinks ‘their’ church is the only ‘truly Christian’ church (and that is pretty much all the conservative Churches) should be consider that this separation of church and state is the only thing which keeps each of those ‘right’ churches safe.
Catholics, especially, should learn more history. Out of the Know-Nothings arose extremely hateful people who may, in the current culture wars, be temporary allies, but historically – and soon enough again – will be your worst enemies. Who is to say that they wouldn’t be in charge if this wall of defense were to be lost?

report abuse


posted September 25, 2010 at 8:58 pm

It’s not our job to tell people how to vote. This is an example of what not to do! Partisan politics will not save one baby. It just won’t happen. Still looking in the Catholic moral theology book where it says that we should endorse certain political parties.
“The Alliance Defense Fund looked into the history of the Johnson Amendment and came to the conclusion that the church, and not the government, should determine whether or not it should support a political candidate or speak out on an important moral issue.”
This is very dangerous and this is not what Christ taught at all. However, we can let people know where candidates stand on certain issues. Like we can say that this candidate is pro-abortion (or pro-choice) and that to support a such a candidate is a grave sin. That’s not the same thing as endorsing political candidates.

report abuse

William Simpson

posted September 26, 2010 at 12:58 am

Separation of church and state is not a Constitution issue. If this is your defense, you don’t have one. SSSHHHHH…
What is an issue, is that ministers of the Gospel are required by Scripture to speak the truth in reference to all aspects of life.
The government dosen’t want men, who have the public’s attention, to influence their congregations decisions based upon the knowledge of their politicians moral conduct. This is the real reason.
Criminals should not be allowed to stay in public office. They should be sent to prison. Which is the record of many people currently holding Republican and Democrat office.
The preacher of the Gospel, should lead the way in exposing these criminals, so that real change can take place.

report abuse

macon church

posted September 26, 2010 at 9:12 am

Couldn’t agree more William

report abuse


posted September 26, 2010 at 9:23 am

Colson gives a very poor explanation.
First of all, the Catholic Church does not allow homilists to endorse political candidates from the pulpit because it violates her own principles. If the tax code also restricts this, it is just guilding the lily.
Second, the LBJ amendment was just a clarification of a long standing IRS regulation. That is why is passed without opposition or debate.
Colson has gone a little overboard here. Churches can discuss legislative issues, however.

report abuse

Vada Davina

posted September 26, 2010 at 11:20 am

“…the LBJ amendment was just a clarification of a long standing IRS regulation. That is why is passed without opposition or debate.”
Cite your source for this, Katherine. I think you might have made this up. LBJ rammed through the amendment to the tax code with the specific intent of silencing two non-profits in TX who were his political opponents. It’s really that clear.

report abuse


posted September 26, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Katherine said, “Second, the LBJ amendment was just a clarification of a long standing IRS regulation. That is why is passed without opposition or debate.” I would also like to know the source of this information…and when and why was church property made tax exempt in the first place? Wasn’t it because elected leaders knew the benefits of a God-fearing public? People who know and obey the 10 Commandments won’t go around stealing, killing, breaking up families, etc.

report abuse


posted September 26, 2010 at 3:22 pm

The problem is not this “gag” order. The problem is that Catholics don’t know their faith. The priest doesnt have to tell the parishioner what candidate to vote for if they have a good cathechism program. They answers become obvious. I think the LBJ ammendment has been a good thing.

report abuse


posted September 26, 2010 at 4:44 pm

The tax code recognized two types of non-profits. 501(c)3 that are charities and 501(c)4, that are civic organizations. Neither groups are taxed and if a Church today wanted to engage in political affairs, it could register as a (c)4 without losing its tax exempt status (however, their contributors would not have their donations exempt on their taxes).

report abuse


posted September 26, 2010 at 4:53 pm

This is not a restriction at all; this is simply a matter of whether or not a given institution will enjoy an unearned privilege. If you want to play the game, you have to pay the green fees.
My part of the world is thick with churches enjoying tax immunities, and yet they really are businesses profiting the pray-churs, their families, and their buddies. And the crime rate is very high. They don’t need more goodies at the expense of others.

report abuse


posted September 26, 2010 at 5:49 pm

How about we write to our Senators asking for the amendment to be amended?
At the same time, keep in mind the other religious organizations that could speak out on candidates.

report abuse

Nurse from Tacoma

posted September 26, 2010 at 6:47 pm

I am an RN who works in a Catholic hopsital in Tacoma, WA. Our hospital routinely sends out emails asking for employees to write or call legislatures about issues facing the hospital (typically about funding cuts for healthcare.) My husband works for a secular non-profit. His agency also routinely asks employees to lobby elected officials about issues that would impact their agency. My question is, why is my employer allowed to do this, but not my church?

report abuse

Former AZ Senator

posted September 26, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Any violation of Freedom of Speech is fundamentally wrong, whether it is LEOs, CIA, DoD, or IRS. IRS is especially onerous since they can make up the rules as they go along, enforcing selectively depending on the Executive Branch directives. Enforcement will be different for Republican than Democrat administrations, thereby violating the very essence of our freedom.
The emasculation of the churches for political influence was a great negative turning point in the social fabric of our nation.
It is truly tragic that this gross violation of our rights has gone unnoticed by the average citizen.

report abuse


posted September 27, 2010 at 2:38 am

My understanding is that churches are given tax exempt status so that the money that would go to the government in the form of taxes can be used by the church to provide services to those in need at no cost to the recipients. This isn’t a bad deal for the government at all. Churches tend to be much better at providing services, at much less cost, and to more people. The government is historically miserable at providing social services. The services the churches provide are services the government is freed from providing, so the government, in turn, can use that money for other concerns. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. We could have a long discussion on whether it does work and why or why not.
With that understanding, tax exempt status is not a favor the government is extending to the church. Or, if it is, the favor works in both directions. The government is scratching the church’s back, while the church scratches the government’s back — each scratching where the other can’t reach.
Given that, there ought to be no restrictions on the free speech rights of churches. Besides, who says churches can’t endorse political candidates? Is no one here aware of the political rallies held during Sunday worship services every year in black Protestant and evangelical churches for Democrats? I’ve never heard of the tax exempt status of these churches being challenged for holding such rallies.

report abuse


posted September 27, 2010 at 10:34 am

I do not see how empowering the IRS to Tax the Church out of existence for admonishing sinners (in Washington DC and City Hall)benfits any one but the above mentioned sinners. Christians unite! Repeal this stupid, stupid law!

report abuse


posted October 1, 2010 at 5:59 am

I’d think y’all would want to have some confidence your preacher was speaking his/her mind, but if they could push candidates from the pulpit many of them would be bought. Let’s face it, preachers are people too.
Or are these posts protesting this from preachers who want their selling price to go way up?

report abuse


posted October 2, 2010 at 9:51 am

My question is, why is my employer allowed to do this, but not my church?
Deart Tacoma Nurse, Your Church IS allowed to do that. Churches, hospitals, labor unions and businesses are all allowed to urge others to write a letter to their congressmember on this issue or that.
And organizations have the free speech right to endorse candidates as well, even if they are tax exempt.
The only restriction is that if a tax exempt, non-profit group want to spend it’s tax exempt money on promoting the election of a candidate, they must register as a 501(c) 4 rather than a 501(c)3. Neither catagory of 501 (c) organizations have to pay taxes. The difference is that for 501 (c) 3 groups, people making contributions to these groups and who itemize (20% of taxpayers) get a tax deduction.
It seems the “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” was a bit of bust. Of the “nearly 100″ parishes participating, most chickened out and didn’t cross any lines.

report abuse

Pingback: Links roundup, 9.27 | Saint Socrates Society

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

This blog is no longer active
This blog is no longer being actively updated. Please feel free to browse the archives or: Read our most popular inspiration blog See our most popular inspirational video Take our most popular quiz ...

posted 10:42:40pm Dec. 12, 2010 | read full post »

One day more
A reminder: "The Deacon's Bench" is closed! Please enjoy the archives! ...

posted 11:26:20pm Dec. 11, 2010 | read full post »

Meet Montana's married priest
Earlier this week, I posted an item about Montana getting its first married priest. Now a local TV station has hopped on the bandwagon. Take a look, below. ...

posted 10:29:55pm Dec. 11, 2010 | read full post »

Big day in the Big Easy: 10 new deacons
Deacon Mike Talbot has the scoop: 10 men today were ordained as Permanent Deacons for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. This group of men was formally selected on the day the evacuation of New Orleans began as Hurricane Katrina approached. The ...

posted 6:55:42pm Dec. 11, 2010 | read full post »

Gaudete! And let's break out a carol or two...
"Gesu Bambino," anyone? This is one of my favorites, and nobody does it better than these gals: Kathleen Battle and Frederica von Staade. Enjoy. ...

posted 1:04:10pm Dec. 11, 2010 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.