Free Speech is a Civil Right: IRS and the Freedom from Religion Foundation Disagree

Free speech is a civil right bumper sticker

So … we’ve got an organization whose sole purpose is to drive religious expression from the public sphere by the use of threats of legal action and harassment.

This organization files a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service and demands that the IRS join them in their harassment of religious people by “monitoring” churches for possible violations of IRS rules. In this instance, what they were suing about was the so-called “Johnson Amendment” to the IRS code.

The Johnson Amendment is the basis for the IRS rule that preachers may not endorse candidates from the pulpit if they are to receive tax-free status. The IRS rule itself is quite specific and narrow. Neither it nor the Johnson Amendment were intended to become the dreadnought by which churches are harassed and bullied in order to keep them from speaking out on moral issues. But that is exactly what has happened.

Groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation routinely conflate the Johnson Amendment with a limitation on First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and religion, including freedom of speech in religion. They harass, bully and intimidate Christians all over the country with threats of lawsuits.  I say Christians because I am not aware of them doing this to other faiths.

It seems obvious to me that they are using the Johnson Amendment as a lever to try to destroy the moral and prophetic voice of Christianity, not only in the public sphere, but from the pulpit, as well.

The Internal Revenue Service of the United States government settled this latest lawsuit by agreeing to become the FFRF’s hammer to beat down on free speech in the pulpit. They didn’t say this in so many words. What they agreed to do was to single out groups based on whether or not they are faith (read that Christian) organizations and “monitor” what their pastors preach for possible violations of the IRS code. If that is not a deliberately chilling government surveillance for the purpose of limiting free speech, what is?

It is particularly salient that the Freedom From Religion Foundation is not just trying to stop churches from endorsing candidates for political office; it is also claiming that they violate the Johnson Amendment when they discuss legislation or political issues. Abortion is a political issue. Gay marriage is a political issue. The genocide in the Middle East is a political issue. Corporatism, the environment, divorce, pornography, sex trafficking, prostitution, taxes, jobs and most everything else in America is a political issue.

We are Americans, which means that we are political people. We have what is purported to be a government of, by and for the people, which means at its root that governmental matters belong to us to cuss, discuss, slice and dice however we choose. That should include every segment of our society, including the pulpit.

If we are also Christians, then our faith guides us in everything we do. Jesus Christ is the Lord of our lives. We try to follow the Gospels in everything. Our faith leaders have not just a right, they have a responsibility to lead us in the Gospel paths of living.

There is no line for Americans between themselves and their politics for the simple reason that our politics, and our government, are us. Our beliefs are legitimately pertinent to political debate because we are the government.

What this lawsuit by the FFRF — and other actions to censor and stifle religious discussion, opinions and activism —  amount to is an attempt to censor and silence a whole set of ideas. This lawsuit is a blatant push to silence people that the FFRF disagrees with by the use of government surveillance of selected groups, coupled with the threat of government action against those groups, and the government is going along with it. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is using the IRS to censor speech in the pulpit. This is not an attempt to drive Christianity from the pubic square through bullying. It is a direct mis-use of government power to silence free speech among a whole class of citizens because another group of citizens does not like what they are saying.

The IRS is going to “monitor” churches to see if the clergy talks about anything more pertinent to our daily lives than, say, Isaac blessing Jacob instead of Esau, for the purpose of hauling them up before the Man. It is as simple as that.

From New American:

The Internal Revenue Service continues to extend its already vast overreach, this time by agreeing to monitor church sermons as part of an agreement the government made on July 17 with the aggressively atheistic Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Freedom Outpost reported, “The Internal Revenue Service settled a lawsuit brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. The 2012 lawsuit was settled after the IRS agreed to monitor what is said in houses of worship, something that is a clear violation of the First Amendment, since no law can be written by Congress to this effect.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, brought the suit against the IRS, asserting that the group had been ignoring complaints that churches were violating their tax-exempt statuses. According to the group’s suit, churches promote political issues, legislation, and candidates from the pulpit.

FFRF asserted, “Pulpit Freedom Sunday … has become an annual occasion for churches to violate the law with impunity. The IRS, meanwhile, admittedly was not enforcing the restrictions against churches.”

FFRF claims that the churches are acting in violation of the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which states that non-profits cannot endorse candidates.

A 2009 court ruling determined that the IRS must staff someone to monitor church politicking, but the Freedom From Religion Foundation claims that the IRS has not been adhering to the ruling.

Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom and head of the Pulpit Initiative, told LifeSiteNews that “the IRS has no business censoring what a pastor preaches from the pulpit.” Stanley states that his organization is currently “attempting to bring the era of IRS censorship and intimidation to an end by challenging the Johnson Amendment, which imposes unconstitutional restrictions on clergy speech.”

He contends that churches should not have to choose between tax-exempt status and freedom of speech. “No one would suggest a pastor give up his church’s tax-exempt status if he wants to keep his constitutional protection against illegal search and seizure or cruel and unusual punishment,” he said.

Stanley insists that not only would it be unfair for churches to have to choose between one or the other, but that “churches are automatically tax exempt out of recognition that the surest way to destroy the free exercise of religion is to begin taxing it.” “Churches are constitutionally entitled to a tax exemption and that exemption cannot be conditioned on the surrender of constitutional rights.”

In celebration of its victory with the IRS, the Freedom From Religion Foundation issued a press release wherein it outlined its win:

The IRS has now resolved the signature authority issue necessary to initiate church examinations. The IRS also has adopted procedures for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations. While the IRS retains “prosecutorial” discretion with regard to any individual case, the IRS no longer has a blanket policy or practice of non-enforcement of political activity restrictions as to churches.

The press release also acknowledges, however, that the judge in the case could not order immediate action since a moratorium has been placed on the investigations by the IRS of tax exempt groups after the 2013 scandal in which the IRS was found to have been targeting Christian and conservative groups.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday: They Preached. They Endorsed. Did They Break the Law?

Despite 60,000 letters from Americans United for Separation of church and State, some 1,500 pastors of various denominations took to the pulpit to endorse political candidates last Sunday.

This action is not only controversial in the nation as a whole, clergy are divided about it, as well.

At the very least, Pulpit Freedom Sunday raises the question of whether or not the government can limit critics from having their say from the pulpit. A Baptist Press article about Pulpit Freedom Sunday says in part:

Charlotte, USA – Baptist Pastor Mark Harris stood before his flock in North Carolina on Sunday and joined hundreds of other U.S. religious leaders in deliberately breaking the law in an election-year campaign that tests the role of churches in politics.

By publicly backing candidates for political office from the pulpit, Harris and nearly 1,500 other preachers at services across the United States were flouting a law they see as an incursion on freedom of religion and speech.

Under the U.S. tax code, non-profit organizations such as churches may express views on any issue, but they jeopardize their favorable tax-exempt status if they speak for or against any political candidate.

“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” has been staged annually since 2008 by a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom. Its aim is to provoke a challenge from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service in order to file a lawsuit and have its argument out in court.

The event has grown steadily in size, but the IRS has yet to respond – even though the pastors tape their sermons and mail them to the agency.

Now in an election year, where a few swing states – including North Carolina – will be crucial, political analysts say pastors campaigning from the pulpit could have an impact.

Critics say the movement threatens the U.S. constitutional principle of separation of church and state and makes pastors look like political operatives rather than neutral spiritual leaders.

“When the church further divides the country, where’s the win in that?” asked Reverend C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, and an opponent of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

In his sermon at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, Harris endorsed a Republican candidate for the state’s Supreme Court, but did not specifically takes sides in the Nov. 6 contest for the White House between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

“I don’t feel I’m breaking the law,” Harris said before addressing a congregation of almost 1,000. “I am speaking as a pastor and as a citizen of the United States where we have that freedom of speech.” (Read more here.)

Rendering Unto Caesar: Pulpit Politics and Christian Witness

Tomorrow, October 7, has been labeled Pulpit Freedom Sunday. It is a day when participating pastors will take a stand against threats against their freedom of speech by giving sermons that “preach Biblical truth about political candidates.”

The fact that ministers of the Gospels feel sufficiently pressured and harassed to self-censure their sermons to organize such a day says quite a lot. My great hope is that they will give America an astringent dose of genuine Gospel preaching without falling into the trap of indulging in personal attacks against any person or group of people. If they do that, tomorrow will be a great day.

It’s interesting to me that things have gotten this far. I can tell you for sure that the pastors in the house district that I’ve represented for going on 17 years have never been shy about speaking out. Back in the day when I was pro choice, they denounced me roundly and loudly from the pulpit, including saying a whole host of things that were untrue and extravagantly malicious.

I  never questioned their right to preach about me from the pulpit and I never made any attempt to force them to stop doing it. I think that America needs a free and untrammeled church for its health and well being as a society and a culture. I also think that the right of Americans of all walks of life to criticize their politicians and elected officials is a core freedom. I didn’t like being the target of all this hate from the pulpit, but I never wanted to curtail the freedom of speech on which it was based.

I’ve written before about the threats many pastors have faced from non-governmental groups and their vague, chain-rattling allusions to possible legal actions against those who fail to comply. I find this behavior disgusting.

The idea that the government would use or threaten to use the tax codes to silence potential critics is appalling. However, while I heartily support the right of pastors to speak freely from the pulpit, that does not mean that I support everything that gets said there. All civilized people are called to exercise personal responsibility in what they say, and Christians, especially Christian leaders, should adhere to an even higher level of personal responsibility.

I know from my own experience that when pastors regard their pulpits and the respect people hold for their position as an entitlement to attack and harm people, they damage the Body of Christ.

It is past time for clergy to stand up against the oft-proclaimed notion that the pulpit should be a free-speech-free zone where government censorship can run riot. But I do hope that whatever truth they decide to proclaim is, in fact, the truth, and not just an amalgam of oft-repeated slanders.

That’s what happened when pastors attacked me. They said outlandish, slanderous things. They said things that were personal, sexual, and verifiably untrue. They were cruel, vicious and, I realize now, an embarrassment to Christ and genuine Christianity.

What these preachers said didn’t convert me at all. In fact, they hardened me in my thinking. I experienced a profound religious conversion a few years later. But most of my friends of that time remain hardened in their dislike and contempt for Christianity and, by default, Jesus Himself. What these preachers said about me isn’t the only reason for this, but it is a contributing factor.

I will be praying for these pastors who plan to “speak truth” this Sunday, but probably not exactly as they would expect. I pray that they will tell the truth and not go off into some hellacious slander fest. I also hope that they remember that they are most likely not Jeremiah and John the Baptist all rolled up into one person, so maybe they should behave with a bit of judicious thoughtfulness before engaging in wild denunciations of individuals and whole groups of people.

America needs the cleansing fire of strong Christian preaching. Say a prayer with me that this is what happens tomorrow.

For more about Pulpit Freedom Sunday, go here.

 

 


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