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Barry, we both agree that our constitutional tradition continues to recognize the freedom to speak from the pulpit about the moral issues of the day. We obviously disagree, however, on whether “Big Brother” government surveillance, investigation, and punishment of churches due to the content of their speech should be stopped once and for all. The thought of Washington bureaucrats sifting through sermon recordings should be unsettling for all people of faith.
For the first century and a half of our nation’s history, “election sermons” were commonplace in which pastors appealed to their congregations to support or oppose particular candidates based on their positions on issues. Religious leaders did not merely speak about moral principles alone – they called church members to take specific action in the voting booth to support those principles. That all changed in the 1950s after a disgruntled politician, then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, sought to silence some of his critics by introducing the provision that bars tax-exempt groups, including churches, from participating in political activity.
Religious leaders are muzzled by the IRS law. While they can speak out for themselves in their individual capacity, they are barred from either supporting or opposing a political candidate in their role as head of a tax-exempt organization. On one hand, the IRS says it’s permissible for religious leaders to discuss important issues of public policy (as they should), but they are prohibited from supporting or opposing a candidate who takes positions on those issues. That’s absurd. The prohibition makes no sense and has far-reaching implications. It censors pastors and it turns the IRS, which was originally designed to collect revenue for the general treasury, into the “speech police.”
Barry, I know about the Pierce Creek case – we litigated it. That’s why a legislative repeal of the burdensome IRS provisions is needed to restore unbridled free speech to religious leaders of all faiths. I strongly support H.R. 2275, a bill sponsored by Congressman Walter Jones (R-N.C.) designed to “restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.”
What’s clearly needed is a legislative remedy, and this bill would help to get the government out of the church-surveillance business.
While some pastors would choose to keep the Johnson-era status quo in their churches, others would use their restored freedom of speech to help their members reconcile their religious faith with their choice of political candidates. The claim that churches will transform into political machines by lifting the current gag rule is simply an unfounded scare tactic, as evidenced by the first century and a half of American experience. A pastor should be responsive to God, his own conscience, and his congregation for what is preached from the pulpit, not the government or the latest public opinion poll.