In 1954 then Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson introduced legislation now known as the “Johnson Amendment.” One of the primary effects of this legislation was a prohibition on 501c3 nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns, or endorsing or opposing specific candidates. The most chilling effect of the Johnson Amendment was the prohibition on pastors endorsing or opposing candidates from their pulpits.
However, these organizations are permitted to engage in issue-related activities and advocacy for non-elective public officials. For example, churches and pastors are permitted to speak to issues such as pro-life and traditional marriage, and can publicly support or oppose Cabinet nominees. Churches are also permitted to distribute non-partisan voter guides which provide information regarding every candidate’s position on certain issues. Churches can also participate in voter registration drives, provided there is no partisan slant to the event.
The Johnson Amendment prevents churches and pastors from full participation in civil society. The Johnson Amendment clearly infringes upon the First Amendment right of pastors and churches by limiting their Free Speech rights. The Johnson Amendment also infringes upon the free exercise of religion, also articulated in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
At the National Prayer Breakfast on February 2, 2017, President Trump reiterated his intent to repeal the Johnson Amendment. “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
While this full-throated support for repeal of the Johnson Amendment is a welcome change from the previous administration, repeal is not something that can be accomplished through an Executive Order. This will require legislation.
Enter Sen. James Lankford and Rep. Jody Hice.
They have introduced a bill in the Senate and the House of Representatives titled the Free Speech Fairness Act. While this bill does not repeal the Johnson Amendment, it does amend the law to allow pastors and churches to speak freely on all matters of life, including candidates and elections, without fear of IRS retribution. WHEN enacted into law, the Free Speech Fairness Act will permit churches and pastors to freely engage in political campaigns and publicly endorse or oppose candidates.
As noted by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Free Speech Fairness Act: applies to all 501(c)(3) entities, not just churches; does not turn churches and charities into political action committees; is constitutionally sound; and is the first step in getting Congress to fix what it created in 1954.
ADF provides the best summary: “The Free Speech Fairness Act is Needed to Protect the Constitutional Freedoms of Pastors and Churches.”
What can you do? If you are a Pastor, inform your congregants about this important bill. If you are a church member, contact your Pastor and inform them about this bill. Then contact your Representatives and Senators and tell them you support the Free Speech Fairness Act and urge the passage this bill.
When the Body of Christ moves, things happen. We have a very real chance to remove the unconstitutional shackles from the church. Let’s not squander this opportunity.