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

Free Speech is a Civil Right: IRS and the Freedom from Religion Foundation Disagree August 12, 2014

 

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.

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60 responses to “Free Speech is a Civil Right: IRS and the Freedom from Religion Foundation Disagree”

  1. I have not heard a single politician’s name come from my pastor’s mouth, ever. We hear about Catholic moral and religious principles which of course most people apply to their decisions of daily life. We are not political, we are moral. How sad the two cannot be understood as different anymore.

    Even if a church was political, it is silly to come down only on churches when we allow all kinds of tax exempt political ‘speech’. The ACLU particularly comes to mind. They demonstrate a clear liberal political bias and attempt to change laws they don’t like (and ignore other constitutional over-stepping like this) which is far more harmful to a plural society than a church pastor. I don’t like supporting their speech via their tax-exempt status but oh, gee, isn’t that freedom already well established? I’d like to know why churches and their members should have less freedom.

    • Oregon Nurse, contact your state legislators and governor and let them know. Your Senators and Congressmen, too.
      Here in NC, I’ve not heard our priests name anyone. They do occasionally talk about political issues as Rebecca mentioned.
      Then, here we have Moral Mondays and the Rev William Barber. I think he is United Church of Christ and he tells his folks how to vote.

  2. As I get older, I become more and more convinced that the Founding Fathers had it right: (strictly) limited and (strictly) enumerated government is the only real safeguard against abuse and tyranny by the State. Yet instead we hand over more and more power to the state, especially to ever more sprawling state bureaucracies with almost limitless leveraging power.

  3. I had heard about this settlement, but thanks for the explanation. That’s the problem with people making the law say anything they want it to mean. And, you cannot have a representative democracy unless people, including elected officials voluntarily control themselves. I wonder if the IRS had some insiders pushing for this settlement. I think this administration just thinks Christians are a nuisance.

  4. Will the IRS’s first stop be the black churches that have always used their pulpits to organize voter drives and recommend candidates? I doubt it. That is part of their heritage and they should be allowed to continue doing it. It doesn’t hurt anyone, rather it is participating in the Democratic system.. Somehow I think that part will be skipped in the new push to monitor Christians in this country.

    • It should be noted that many churches actually opt out of tax exemption in order to pursue initiatives like this, and they should be commended for following the law and staying true to their principles.

      Of course, conservatives should rightly point out the hypocrisy if liberal churches BOTH A.) Take the exemption and B.) Recommend specific candidates (voter registration drives are not an issue under the law.) We need a strong opposition party to correct overreach from whoever is in power. Just make sure you are actually criticizing truly illegal discrimination, and understand the law before you speak up…

    • If they’re electioneering, I’ll lead the parade….separation is separation, whether I agree with the position being taken or not

    • Yes. If they are promoting candidates in violation of the rules governing the tax exemption, then yes. It actually works well for churches – on both sides – to stay above the political fray.

  5. Let me make this clear I am a strong supporter of freedom of religion in your home and houses of worship. But we have to keep religion and politics separate in the public square. If we do not we will end up like Iraq. If you want tax exempt status you cannot support/endorse a specific candidate or use your faith to modify our laws which govern every citizen. To do so will only tear our society apart.

    • So, you support freedom of religion behind closed doors — which means you oppose this lawsuit and IRS settlement, btw — but not on the streets because if people can say religious things in public it will lead to genocide.

      That an interesting bit of illogic. The First Amendment says nothing about freedom only being for indoor activities. There is no American limit on free speech that applies requires its limitation to under a roof and behind walls. This is just you, trying to censor other people’s free speech because you don’t like what they say.

      You attempt to dignify what is in fact and in practice advocacy for tyranny by claiming that if people can talk about religion in public, it will lead to genocide.

      I don’t suppose that murderous intent could possibly be fomented indoors. It only occurs out of doors, or outside people’s homes and houses of worship.

      There is no basis in American law for limiting free speech and freedom of religion to indoor activities. In fact, there is quite a bit of law — including the Constitution — allowing it in public venues.

      What you are advocating is tyranny that is quite similar to many of the restrictions placed on religious activity in Communist countries. That, of course, is the problem with militant secularism (as opposed to healthy secularism which calls for mutual respect between competing beliefs.) It is just a form f tyranny.

      • I am not trying to suppress free speech. I believe anyone can say anything they want and where they want. But inhibiting free commerce is another thing. We have minorities in this country which deserve equal access to all good and services. When you begin using your faith as a weapon to deny goods and services then you are wrong. I will always defend people of faith if someone from another faith (or atheist) would deny them equal access to goods and services.
        I am not advocating tyranny. I am trying to prevent the majority from attacking the minority. That is the most important purpose of OUR US Constitution. I suggest you sit down one day and read it.

        • You’re changing the subject in order to create a red herring. I’m not in the mood. Go back to the atheist blogs and call me names, then follow through by calling Christians names. But you aren’t taking over this blog today. As I said, I’m not in the mood.

          • I am not trying to take over anything. And I did not call anyone “names”. And as a Christian I am entitled to come here and express my faith and beliefs or do you somehow have a lock on this too?

            • No Jeff, you are not “entitled” to come here and express anything. There is no right, Constitutional or otherwise, to post in Public Catholic’s com boxes.

              Having said that, I was too harsh with you. I apologize.

        • In my part of the country Black Churches are politically active–they invite politicians to speak during services on election years. Black Churches routinely have “get out the vote” campaigns, going so far as to take unregistered voters to register AND to vote. Are Black Churches doing something wrong with their political advocacy? Should they be kept from encouraging and assisting Black Americans to exercise their rights? Is your interpretation of religious freedom an attack on Black and Latino minorities?
          Are you trying to silence all Churches (Black Churches, Unitarians, Quakers, liberal Protestants) or only conservative white churches? My friend’s Church is politically active, including during sermons. Their preacher advocates for an open border with Mexico, an end to war in Afghanistan and advocacy for gay marriage. Should my friend and his Church be silenced?
          There’s been evidence that the IRS has gone after groups it identifies as conservative or Tea-Party. Is the IRS really the group that should be monitoring freedom of speech and freedom of religion?

          • All these churches had better tread very carefully. I urge you to read the Johnson Amendment of 1954. A church must be very careful to not lose their tax exempt status. I am not saying faiths cannot speak out on issues. But if the faith begins to use their might as a weapon to deny religious freedom to others or access to goods and services to a specific group of people they are venturing on very thin ice.

              • Amend it how? So it further protects certain religions who use their faith to manipulate all of society? I hope you are not suggesting that.

                • I’m tired of the way it’s being mis-used to harass and intimidate people. It needs to be amended to stop the harassment and intimidation which is aimed at limiting people’s free exercise of their Constitutional rights to free speech. Groups like FFRF are just hate groups yapping about “rights” as a cover for what is in practice an organized program of harassment and intimidation designed to limit other people’s free expression.

                  I’m not in Congress, so I’m not going to weigh in on language, but knowing Congress and their inability to do anything but run for re-election and one-up one another, you have no fears. 🙂

                  • You mean like religious groups have been doing to limit the rights of tax paying citizens to marry and women to make decisions about their own bodies? Now if you want to label something a hate group…it might be a good place to start. And before you go after me I consider myself to be a good Christian.

                    • Now it comes out. Christians who have views different from yours — in this case, on the subject of gay marriage and abortion — should be harassed into silence by the government.
                      It sounds as if your support for the FFRF and limiting Christians free speech comes from your disagreement over issues and your wish to silence those you disagree with.

                      Now, to the charge that anyone who holds views that disagree with yours — in this case, supporting traditional marriage and refusing to kill people at any stage of their lives — is a “hate” group for holding those views. Frankly Jeff, that’s so over the top stupid that I’m not going to bother answering it. People can have ideas different from yours and not be hate groups. Period,

                      Christians who hold these viewpoints and who take political action in support of them are exercising their rights to petition the government and participate in the electoral process that every American holds. The attempts to limit their free exercise of their rights because they hold viewpoints you don’t like is … dare I say it? … an attempt at tyranny.

                  • Intimidated?!?…..when 70-80% of the population, and 99.99%+ of elected officials are Christian, you’re daring to claim intimidation?!?

                    • Lessee, FFRF sues pizza parlor over church bulliten coupons, FFRF intimidates another resteraunt into no more discounts for people that pray before meals… FFRF sues to have memorial cross for boy killed in auto accident removed because it WAS ON PUBLIC PROPERTY. Shall I go on, or has the hypocrisy of your statement been proven yet? Not one of these are “government” or “laws” but your beloved un-constitutional bully boys are attacking private citizens expressing their faith.

              • That would be an entirely appropriate course.
                So is challenging it in the courts as an impermissible restriction on free exercise.

                However, many of these churches were deliberately challenging the law, with some even sending videos to the IRS as a way of daring them to prosecute. Complaining about the IRS investigating is like stoners complaining about a DA prosecuting them when they send videos of rolling and smoking a joint to the DEA.

        • “I am not trying to suppress free speech.”

          And I am going to call BS. Your original comment clearly shows that’s exactly what you want to do:

          “Let me make this clear I am a strong supporter of freedom of religion in
          your home and houses of worship. But we have to keep religion and
          politics separate in the public square.”

          • The English language needs a few more words. The word “public” has different meaning in different contexts.

            Everyone is free to practice their religion “in public” where anyone can see them You can stand on a soap box and pray on street corners as long as you don’t block traffic. You can rent the pavilion at the local park for a religious event on the same terms as any other individual or organization. You can build churches on every street corner. That’s one definition of public.

            In another context, “public” means “government”. Public libraries, public parks, public schools and public buildings are all taxpayer funded. No one has the right to use public (government) property, resources or authority to advance one religious viewpoint.

            But anyone can practice their religion “in public” as they see fit.

            The term “public square” can be problematic, because sometimes that could mean “in public” while other times that could mean “public property.”

    • ” But we have to keep religion and politics separate in the public square. If we do not we will end up like Iraq.”

      The only way that will happen is if the intolerance you espouse toward me becomes violent oppression. You know nothing of which you speak. People like you are dangerous because you either know exactly how facist you are or you are so blind you can’t see your own bigotry and hypocrisy.

      My politics is my religiously formed conscience and I will vote MY conscience not yours. Now go take your religious opinions back to your home since that’s where you believe they belong.

      • Last week, the host of Access Hollywood, a nationally syndicated show, said:

        “Every time I’m around, if I’m ever around an XXXX, I think I’m gonna
        get hit by lightning or something. I just don’t even want to be in the
        room with them.”

        Was the speaker religious or non-religious? Was the target of bigotry religious or non-religious? Three guesses.

        In the quote, the actual word used in place of XXXX was “atheist”.

        Take a look at the actual cases brought by the FFRF. Almost every one involves the use of government property, resources or authority to promote religion.* Neither the FFRF or any atheist I have ever met has a problem with people being religious or promoting their religion with their own resources, own authority, using their own property.

        * The exception is when places of business discriminate on the basis of religion, including violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

        We don’t want the state of Utah using schools to proselytize non-mormons. We don’t want Utah city councils discriminating against non-mormons in city services. We also don’t want schools in mostly protestant cities proselytizing evangelical christianity. We don’t want city councils in mostly protestant cities discriminating against catholics.

        Our country works best, and we as individuals have the most freedom, when the government stays strictly neutral about religion.

        Individuals can vote and participate in the political process, and should. But tax exempt churches agreed to stay neutral and should keep their word.

    • ” . . . or use your faith to modify our laws.” Churches cannot vote to change laws–individuals vote. Are you saying that I cannot consider the implications of my faith when I vote? If I cannot enter a poll and vote according to my own conscience, which was in part formed by my faith, then whose conscience do I vote by?
      I thought the political process was all about unique and free individuals doing what they can to “modify laws”. I do not know how to keep my faith from not influencing how I think, behave or vote. I bet you don’t either!

  6. Dear Rebecca,

    So far in the wider discussion (not only the respondents to your blog) I have heard very little from anyone who notes that the Church in general and in all its various denominational representations has a long history of speaking from the heart of faith into the mess of the real world.

    Jeremiah and other prophets were persecuted for it, but the record of their proclamations against societal evils has stood the test of time.

    What about the ministries of the various Catholic organizations and religious (e.g., the Little Sisters of the Poor) who have worked tirelessly against to bring hope to a hopeless world without words, and those in the Church who have received the calling of evangelization?

    Not to mention the work of many other Christians in medical missions, in founding hospitals, universities, and grade schools throughout this country; the works of mercy by the Salvation Army, the Methodists and many others, and Martin Luther’s insistence that the vocation of all secular rulers to care for their people is derived from the spiritual authority given to them by God. All of these run counter to the argument that seems to say that the government is gracious in granting “freedom of speech” to churches and religious organizations, and has the authority to limit it.

    The premise of that argument is hogwash.

    They may not like it – they may throw the prophetic voices in prison (or in mucky cisterns, like Jeremiah) – they may even kill them. But the premise of their argument is wrong on its face. It is not the government that gives the churches the right to exist – it is the Triune God we worship who gives the government the right to exist for the sake of the protection of all of the government’s citizens, and particularly for the protection of God’s people on this earth until He brings them home.

  7. There is a simple solution for churches that want to engage in electioneering. Write to the IRS and disclaim their 501(c)3 tax-exempt status. Tax-exempt status is a privilege not a right.

    • Yeah, this really comes down to “I don’t want to have to obey the law and want my government $$$.” If you have specific instances of lawbreaking from the other side, you should speak up and demand justice, but don’t pretend it justifies your lawbreaking. The IRS is there to catch people who are trying to game the system. Being forced to stop breaking the law is not “bullying”.

      • The FFRF group is trying to expand the definition and include issues which are not part of the Johnson Act; however, under this administration, anything goes.

  8. Reading some of these comments, I’m reminded of the saying, “We’re from the government. We’re here to help you.” That morphs into, “so you have to do as we say because we know best.” And finally, “Look at what they are doing over there. We don’t like it and we’re victims, so the government has to stop them.”

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