A newly introduced bill may soon grant relief to the country’s churches and nonprofits where political speech has been suppressed by the government-imposed Johnson Amendment which threatens the loss of tax exempt status for mentioning political candidates or issues from the pulpit or other nonprofit group.
According to a press release from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Free Speech Fairness Act, introduced in the U.S. House on Wednesday by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Rep. Jody Hice, (R- GA) is designed to restrict enforcement of the Johnson Amendment against churches and other non-profit groups for whom the law was never intended.
The bill will restore free speech and religious liberty to churches and other nonprofits by allowing them to make political statements, so long as they are (1) made in the ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose, and (2) any expenditure related to this are de minimis (minor).
For example, the bill ensures that a minister can make comments about a political candidate or issue as part of a sermon. Additionally, if a charity normally sends out a monthly newsletter related to its core purpose, the bill allows them to occasionally include comments on political issues, or candidates. They would not, however, be allowed to create an entirely new direct mail campaign solely for political information.
The bill does not allow non-profit organizations or churches to engage in political activities outside the normal scope of their tax exempt work or contribute to political activities or candidates.
The problem started in 1954 when then-Senator Lyndon Johnson inserted an amendment into a larger IRS bill without floor or Committee debate. The Johnson amendment prohibits non-profits and churches from engaging in any activity that might be interpreted as participating in, or intervening in a campaign on or behalf of or in opposition to a candidate for public office, including a simple oral or written statement.
For 50 years, churches and other nonprofits have seen their free speech rights imposed upon by this amendment even though the right to free speech and the free exercise of religion are considered unalienable rights according to the U.S. Constitution.
“Americans do not give up their right to speech when they go to work for a church or nonprofit. Yet, that is legal state of affairs under the Johnson Amendment,” explains the ADF. “It puts the IRS in the position of judge and jury on comments made by ministers from the pulpit and all speech from nonprofits. Given the IRS’s egregious abuses in recent years, this IRS power is most concerning.”
According to the ADF, 99 churches have been singled out by the IRS for investigation.
“It is unclear to what degree the IRS is investigating churches and other nonprofits, but they are being pressured by outside groups to do so,” the ADF reports. “In 2012, the IRS settled a suit with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) which was complaining that the IRS did not enforce the prohibition on political activity. The IRS created a unit which investigates church violations – the ‘Political Activity Referral Committee’ (PARC). It has identified 99 churches as having ‘potential impermissible political campaign intervention activities.’
“Knowing that it is Lois Learner’s former division that is responsible for flagging potential violators is disturbing in itself. Efforts have been made to understand the extent of PARC’s investigations, but in April of this year, the IRS withheld more than 10,000 pages of information in a FOIA request by Judicial Watch that would explain the agency’s audit process for investigating churches.”
This is why lawmakers believe it is necessary to enact a new law that will protect the public from being the targets of political attacks by the IRS.
“The IRS has no business acting as the speech police of any non-profit organization, as its many scandals over recent years have made clear,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley.
“This bill corrects an unconstitutional restriction put in place in 1954 that was never intended to affect churches and other non-profit groups but has been used to intimidate them ever since. By removing the threat of an IRS investigation and potential penalties based simply, for example, on what a pastor says from the pulpit, this bill brings the law into conformity with the First Amendment.”
He adds: “No tax exemption can be based on a requirement that a church or any other non-profit organization give up a constitutionally protected freedom, including free speech. With regard to churches, they can decide for themselves what they should or shouldn’t say from the pulpit. Americans don’t need the IRS to be the referee.”
Contact your congressman or woman today and ask them to get behind this bill!
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