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For Free Speech, Give Up Your Tax Exempt Status

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of


When thinking of cruel and unusual punishment, we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of torture or similarly brutal treatment at the hands of police interrogators and/or agents of the State. But we would do ourselves a service by broadening our horizons a bit and considering the fact that a denial of our natural, God-given rights – even apart from any subsequent physical abuse – is both cruel and unusual.

Cruel, because it is tantamount to denying us a part of our humanity, and unusual, because denying someone a part of their own humanity is not the “usual” sort of thing we should be doing.

Yet it remains a fact that every Sunday, when pastors in America ascend the pulpit, they face the cruel and unusual prospect of exchanging their natural, God-given right to free speech for a government-ordained lexicon (if they want to keep their tax-exempt status).

This is befuddling to say the least.

For no one would suggest a pastor give up his church’s tax-exempt status if he wants to keep his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment or illegal search and seizure. (Even if they thought it, few would actually voice the words.) Or imagine how preposterous it would be for the government to tell a church, “If you don’t want to quarter troops in your church building, it’s simple:  just give up your tax-exempt status.”  Yet this is precisely what groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State ask churches to do when they tell pastors, “Hey, if you want to exercise your First Amendment right to free speech, just give up your tax-exempt status.” 

Here’s the problem they hope you won’t see:  No government-recognized status can be conditioned upon the surrender of a constitutionally protected right.  And that’s why ADF started Pulpit Freedom Sunday: to get the government out of the pulpits of America.

It is wrong, both morally and civically, for the government to tell pastors they can have a tax-exempt status for their church so long as they don’t say anything from the pulpit which the government doesn’t condone. And make no mistake, those are the parameters the Johnson Amendment (1954) places on pastors throughout the land.

The Johnson Amendment was created by then-Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was seeking a way to silence those opposed to his re-election efforts. The amendment prohibits non-profit organizations (including churches) from doing anything to support or oppose a candidate for office.

The enforcement arm for the Johnson Amendment is the IRS. This means the very agency that oversees tax exempt entities is given the power to take such status away from churches if their pastors don’t comport with government mandates.

The First Amendment applies to all Americans, even to pastors. And on October 2, 2011, we encourage pastors around the country to stand up against governmental overreach and constitutional infringement, and exercise the constitutional rights they have always had to talk about how various political candidates match up with Biblical principles.

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