Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom joined 47 other signatories to a letter delivered to congressional leaders last week that encourages them to make hearings and votes on the Free Speech Fairness Act a priority.
The bill, introduced by Reps. Steve Scalise, R-La., and Jody Hice, R-Ga., in February, would allow non-profit organizations to speak freely in the ordinary course of their business on all matters of life, including elections and candidates, if they choose to do so. ADF has been actively seeking to end enforcement of the Johnson Amendment against churches through its Pulpit Freedom Sunday effort since 2008.
“Americans don’t need a federal tax agency to be the speech police of churches, which have a constitutionally protected freedom to decide for themselves what they want to say or not say,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley. “By removing the threat of an IRS investigation and potential penalties based simply on what a pastor says from the pulpit, this bill brings the law into conformity with the First Amendment. It fixes a restriction enacted in 1954 that was never intended to affect churches but has been used to intimidate them ever since.”
“Not only is it unconstitutional, but the Johnson Amendment has been inconsistently enforced by the IRS, causing many non-profits confusion over how and when they may speak about political issues and candidates…,” the letter explains. “These inconsistencies have had the effect of significantly chilling the freedom to believe and speak that is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
“For the last decade, many churches have participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday and have spoken from the pulpit on political matters,” the letter continues. “They in turn have sent their sermons to the IRS to elicit a response and a court challenge of the Johnson Amendment. The IRS has not investigated these churches, but its guidance has not changed, and churches are left in limbo. In addition, every year, organizations hostile to religious liberty threaten churches with letters promising to report them to the IRS, which has also contributed to the stifling of speech under the Johnson Amendment.”
The Free Speech Fairness Act allows limited political activity that is made in the ordinary course of a 501(c)(3) organization’s regular and customary activities, so long as the organization does not incur more than minimal incremental costs. Thus, this legislation respects free speech without allowing tax-exempt organizations to purchase political ads for or against a candidate for public office.
“The government can’t base any tax exemption on a requirement that a church or any other non-profit organization surrender a constitutionally protected freedom like free speech,” Stanley explained. “We hope that House leaders will consider this fix a priority in light of the Johnson Amendment’s constitutional defects.”