Pulpit freedom under attack… News out of Houston this morning from FNC raises once again the specter of the dreaded Johnson Amendment from 1954 (recognized today as “501(c)3”) which has been restricting the topics that pastors may/may not address from their pulpits for 60 years.
The city of Houston has issued subpoenas demanding a group of pastors turn over any sermons dealing with homosexuality, gender identity or Annise Parker, the city’s first openly lesbian mayor. And those ministers who fail to comply could be held in contempt of court. “The city’s subpoena of sermons and other pastoral communications is both needless and unprecedented,” Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Christina Holcomb said in a statement. “The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions.” ADF, a nationally-known law firm specializing in religious liberty cases, is representing five Houston pastors. They filed a motion in Harris County court to stop the subpoenas arguing they are “overbroad, unduly burdensome, harassing, and vexatious.” Pulpit freedom under attack…
On a closely-related topic of the same genre, is the report upcoming from Erik Stanley in CNS news, of the IRS issuing a statement to the churches: “To Exercise Free Speech, Give Up Your Tax Exempt Status.” To which I heartily agree. Most of you know my particular stance on this issue, as I’ve addressed it many times, with the added information that more, and more, and more pastors and churches are relinquishing their 501(c)3 status for more freedom of speech from the pulpit. I’ve said before – years before, in fact – that churches should give up their tax-exempt status. But as Stanley points out in the piece upcoming, when you give something up to tyrants, they always come back for more, which is why we need to turn the tables on government tyrants. There are many things that should be done to them: cutting their paychecks, revoking their pensions and all health plans that they don’t pay for themselves out of their greatly-diminished paychecks, defunding many government agencies … I know. Impossible. Maybe. Probably. But there needs to be severe, extreme pushback. We need to enslave government employees instead of letting them enslave us. Yeah, I know. It’s all a pipe dream. Probably. But we need to guard against Pulpit freedom under attack. People have often commented on the difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Thinking about the differences, it occurs to me that the French had an extremely oppressive, arrogant, privileged elitist class resident in their nation (“Resident Evil”?), and that undoubtedly had an effect on their attitudes and actions in their revolution.
Hmmmm. Extremely oppressive. Arrogant. Privileged. Elitist. For some reason that sounds familiar. DemoMarxism?
Are there churches that are incredibly wealthy and opulent? Yes. However, the vast majority of churches in this country are surviving on a shoestring budget, or at best, bringing in just enough surplus to save money for the future and/or fund local community projects. Even many of those churches with gorgeous and expensive sanctuaries and facilities aren’t actually wealthy, they may have had an old member pass, or a certain family come into money, who then donated to update or renovate the facilities, usually to glorify God. So no, there is absolutely no reason to tax churches. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s rage against the non-support of his campaigning from the church pulpits, can surely be finally put to bed in the same grave in which he lies after 50 years can’t it? Shouldn’t it? After all, it was LBJ who began this Pulpit freedom under attack…
Now to Erik Stanley and his piece …
So far this year, the Pulpit Freedom movement has seen more than 1,500 pastors nationwide preach sermons that analyze the positions of various political candidates—an exercise in free speech that dates back to the foundation of the church, yet, violates a flawed Internal Revenue Service rule known as the Johnson Amendment.
More than 3,800 pastors have been part of this movement in some form or fashion since its inception in 2008. The goal is to create a court case that will challenge the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment in court. The point of all this is not, as some detractors claim, to force politics into churches. It is precisely the opposite: to get the government out of the church. No matter what a person’s view is on what a pastor ought to preach, everyone should agree that the IRS is not an appropriate overseer. That’s precisely the kind of government involvement with churches that the authors of the Bill of Rights sought to prevent.
How can the free speech of pastors be relegated to a taxation issue when the government has never been allowed to condition any government-recognized status (such as tax-exempt status) on the surrender of a constitutionally protected freedom? That’s why the IRS rule against free speech for pastors should be struck down as unconstitutional.
To illustrate, those who so easily say, “If you want to exercise your right to free speech, just give up your tax-exempt status,” don’t see the obvious problem with that line of reasoning. Are they also prepared to say, “If you want to exercise your right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, just give up your tax-exempt status” or “if you want to maintain your right against cruel and unusual punishment, just give up your tax-exempt status”? Just as with those other rights, free speech is a constitutionally protected freedom, not a privilege that the government can grant or revoke while dangling the tax-exempt status of the speaker’s church over his head.
And what about that status? Does the federal government “subsidize” religion when the IRS grants tax-exempt status to a church? No. Tax exemption is not a government entitlement program. In fact, tax exemption is not a government subsidy at all, unless you believe that no one can actually have their own money and that it all belongs to the government—an idea that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected in an Alliance Defending Freedom case as recently as 2011. In other words, the arguments against the Pulpit Freedom movement fail because the premise is all wrong. It’s not the case that the church has a bunch of the government’s money and must justify why the government can’t demand it back. No, the government has a duty to justify why it must take money that belongs to its citizens.
And since churches, like most charities, are non-profits that have been outside of the government’s legitimate tax base since the founding of the nation, the government has no automatic right to the church’s money just because its pastor won’t give up his constitutionally protected right to free speech. Some point to the deduction individuals receive for their church contributions as a “benefit” that justifies suppressing the free speech and freedom of religion of churches. But individuals can also claim a deduction for contributions to other tax-exempt groups, such as veterans’ organizations, who are not subject to the Johnson Amendment. Why should churches be treated any differently?
Cynics and conspiracy theorists like to point to a handful of church excesses and demand that all churches be burdened with taxes. But the overwhelming majority of churches are far from “wealthy” and do tremendous good for their communities—often relieving the government and taxpayers of having to provide a whole host of community services. And that’s just one reason why the government has never done taxpayers and all citizens the disservice of taxing churches and charities. Reducing their ability to do good does no one any good whatsoever.
Most troubling of all is the ease with which some who oppose the Pulpit Freedom movement like to cite the so-called “separation of church and state,” while at the same time advocating that the state regulate the speech of the church. No, as America’s founders would have agreed, a pastor is the one who should determine what he says from the pulpit, not the federal government—and that is as it should be.
Pulpit freedom under attack indeed … A closing thought or two:
I believe any Bible-believing church should refuse the tax exempt status for at least a couple of Biblically informed reasons:
1) It will improve the blessedness of giving in secret. With tax exemption, there are no secrets. The Treasurer of the church and anyone else handling the offerings know how much you give when you need tabs or receipts of your tithes and offerings (Matthew 6:1-6)
2) With the information known among various members about how much each member or family is giving, such knowledge causes class divisions and temptations to partiality – eg. some sin may be more tolerated among those who are able to give larger tithes and offerings to risk reproof causing offense and a quitting of their tithes, offerings, and/or membership. God is not a respecter of persons and should be trusted first to provide the church’s needs (James 2:1-4)