An important moral voice in American public life was muzzled in 1954, and we are still paying the price.
Before 1954, pastors of churches were free to speak out about candidates and political issues whenever they thought it wise to do so, and many did. But in 1954, Congress amended the Internal Revenue Code to restrict the speech of non-profit organizations. This amendment – spearheaded by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas – required churches to refrain from promoting or opposing any political candidate by name. Apparently Johnson had proposed the amendment to “get back” at two non-profit organizations that had vocally opposed his candidacy. His amendment passed on a voice vote without debate.
Since that time, the IRS has insisted that any speech by churches that deals with candidates for political office, including a pastor’s sermon, could result in a church losing its non-profit, tax-exempt status. This law has suppressed the valuable moral guidance that American pulpits could be contributing to our political process.
However, the IRS has never actually followed through on their threat to revoke a church’s tax-exempt status! I think there is a reason for that: They know that the law is unconstitutional.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Christian legal defense organization, has recently questioned the validity of this IRS policy because they believe that the policy is an unconstitutional violation of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. ADF attorneys believe the Johnson amendment violates the freedom of religion found in the First Amendment by requiring government to excessively and pervasively monitor the speech of churches. By restricting the content of sermons it places a significant burden on a church’s ability to exercise its religion.
The Johnson amendment also violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment because it requires the government to discriminate against speech because of its content. In other words, some speech is allowed, but other speech is not. The U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated this type of speech discrimination for decades. The amendment also violates the Free Speech clause because it conditions the receipt of a tax exemption on refraining from certain types of speech.