Members of Congress introduced legislation in the House and Senate on Wednesday that would restore the rights of churches and pastors to speak and advocate politically from the pulpit without fear of their tax-exempt status being revoked by the Internal Revenue Service.
“A preacher should not have to get permission from the IRS to be able to preach to their congregation and that is what has been happening,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said Wednesday during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol.
Scalise and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., have introduced “The Free Speech Fairness Act,” a measure that would amend the Johnson Amendment of 1954. The six-decade old law has effectively threatened churches and other 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations with revocation of their tax-exempt status if they endorse a political candidate.
The measure was first introduced by Scalise last September in the last legislative session just days before pastors and churches around the country participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an annual initiative to get pastors to speak politically from their pulpits and challenge the IRS to take action against them.
“The IRS has hung like a cloud over the free speech rights of so many organizations, threatening to take away their tax-exempt status if they disseminated a message that was important to their congregation. That’s not the role of government,” Scalise stated. “That’s not the kind of separation of powers that exist in the Constitution to allow people to express their religious beliefs.”
In addition to Scalise and Lankford, the legislation is supported by a number of their congressional colleagues including freshman Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Southern Baptist Pastor Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.).
“Any nonprofit institution shouldn’t have to worry about the IRS watching and monitoring what they say. It’s a very simple principle. This allows an individual to have their constitutional rights,” Lankford, a former Baptist youth group leader, said. “When you work for a nonprofit organization, you don’t lose your right to assembly, you don’t lose your right to free press, you don’t lose your Second Amendment rights, you don’t lose your right to privacy. But for whatever reason, we have said that if you work for a nonprofit organization, you do lose your right to free speech. That’s absurd.”
Lankford assured that the legislation does not allow churches and nonprofit organizations to engage in political campaigning. According to a fact sheet about the legislation provided by the social conservative advocacy group Family Research Council, the bill protects political activities that fall within the “organization’s regular and customary activities, so long as the activities carry out the organization’s tax-exempt purpose.”