Most scholars recognize that the Johnson Amendment had nothing to do with churches. It was a cleverly designed bill to silence some nonprofit organizations who opposed Lyndon Johnson’s Senate campaign. But that hasn’t stopped activist groups from wielding the IRS weapon to silence churches across the country. The tax agency’s rule is unconstitutional because it muzzles free speech and improperly entangles the state in church affairs.
The state cannot demand the surrender of constitutional rights for a church to remain tax exempt.
Nonprofit organizations are exempted because they are not profit-makers. If citizens are already taxed on their individual incomes, taxing their participation in a voluntary organization from which they derive no monetary gain amounts to double taxation.
Churches are all the more tax exempt. Church tax exemption is not a gift, nor is it a “subsidy,” as some disingenuously contend. As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, the power to tax involves the power to destroy, and churches have always been exempt from taxation under the principle that there is no surer way to destroy religion than to begin taxing it.
And how ironic is it that those who publicly wave the “separation of church and state” banner are the loudest voices demanding that the federal government entangle itself in the most intimate church business, namely the content of pastors’ sermons? Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group that has made its name using the tax man as an axe man, recently wrote, “Constitutional violations do not get grandfathered in simply because of the passage of time.”
AU should listen to its own words. The unconstitutional Johnson Amendment is an axe that’s been around for a half century, but that doesn’t make it constitutional. And neither does the feeling of power the AU enjoys in prodding the IRS to wield it.
This tax rule is a surefire way to destroy the free exercise of religion. It’s time to get the government out of the pulpits of America.