Erik Stanley

In the wake of the most successful Pulpit Freedom Sunday to date, a look at opponents who have commented publicly about the event in recent days shows that they are still attacking it for something it’s clearly not. In other words, the arguments against Pulpit Freedom Sunday fail because the premise for those arguments is all wrong.

This year, as part of the event, nearly 1,600 pastors nationwide preached sermons that analyzed the positions of various political candidates—an exercise in free speech that violates a flawed Internal Revenue Service rule known as the Johnson Amendment. The goal is to create a court case that will challenge the constitutionality of the rule in court.

But objectors—such as Bloomberg View, as just one example—have made several fundamental errors in their assertion that this is really just all a taxation issue that has nothing to do with free speech.

That editorial admits, “The line between religious belief and political action is often indistinct,” but then states that “pastors demanding government tax preferences for political crusades have clearly crossed it.”

But pastors who participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday are not engaging in a “political crusade.” Instead, they are simply applying Scripture and theological doctrine to the positions held by the candidates running for office. Pastors have been applying scriptural teaching to circumstances facing their congregations for centuries. This is not “political” speech. Rather, it’s core religious expression from a spiritual leader to his congregants. That kind of expression is at the very center of the freedom of speech and religion protections in the First Amendment.

The real question is this: When has the government ever been allowed to condition any government-recognized status (such as tax-exempt status) on the surrender of a constitutionally protected freedom?

Those who so easily say, “If you want to exercise your right to free speech, just give up your tax-exempt status,” don’t see the obvious problem with that line of reasoning. Are they also prepared to say, “If you want to exercise your right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, just give up your tax-exempt status” or “if you want to maintain your right against cruel and unusual punishment, just give up your tax-exempt status”?

Erik Stanley

Erik Stanley is senior legal counsel, director of Church Project with Alliance Defending Freedom.