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A Movement to Break the Silence of Churches in Political Campaigns

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

In the summer of 1954, an ambitious senator from Texas running for re-election became afraid that he might not win re-election because several large churches in the state were speaking out against his liberal politics. So what did he do? Powerful Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson rammed through Congress legislation that stripped these churches of their free-speech rights.

Fifty-four years after this travesty of justice became law; a courageous group of voices is breaking the silence.

Johnson manipulated the process and his fellow Senators who were anxious to leave for summer recess in 1954. No hearings, testimony or comments by any tax-exempt organizations occurred before this prohibition entered the Internal Revenue Tax Code. His amendment to the IRS Code bans intervention in political campaigns by organizations, including churches, which receive federal tax-exempt status. If a pastor speaks too loudly, the entire church can lose their tax-exemption. It worked like a charm for Johnson, and it stopped all criticism of him in Texas churches.

On September 28, a heroic group of pastors challenged the ban by testing their First Amendment rights. They are speaking out in their pulpits on politics.

But the question that begs to be answered is: has this prohibition contributed to moral decay in America? The moral decline of the nation accelerated after the ban was instituted. Abortion, sexual crimes, rape and pornography have all increased dramatically since Johnson's gag order was passed.

"I believe the church has been silent too long, which is why we have so much corruption in the world now," said one of those courageous ministers, Rev. Mike Gonzalez of Columbia, S.C.

The First Amendment of the Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Erik Stanley, legal counsel for Alliance Defense Fund, the organization that sponsored the Pulpit Freedom Sunday, argues, "IRS rules don't trump the Constitution-and the First Amendment trumps the Johnson Amendment."

A cloud of intimidation has been hanging over churches since 1954. "Pastors have a right to speak about biblical values from the pulpit without fear of punishment," Stanley said. "No one should be able to use the government to intimidate pastors into giving up their constitutional rights.Groups like Americans United intentionally trigger IRS investigations that will silence churches through fear, intimidation, and disinformation."

"They use that to keep religion out of morals," says another pastor, Rev. Phil Ellsworth, who points out the church has historically always been involved in politics, using as examples the abolition of slavery, child labor laws and civil rights. "What some people call social issues, I call Bible. It's our job to be involved."

That's why Rev. Gonzalez said to his congregation on Pulpit Freedom Sunday, "I urge you not to vote for Barack Obama or any candidate that stands in the same positions and activities that the Lord condemns."

"The intimidation of churches by leftist groups using the IRS has grown to a point that ADF has no choice but to respond," Stanley said, explaining why ADF felt the need to sponsor the "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" campaign to challenge the Johnson Amendment. "The number of threats being reported to ADF is growing because of the aggressive campaign to unlawfully silence the church. "

This ban on pastors "has always troubled me" said Rev. John W. Yates, a clergyman in the shadows of Washington from nearby Falls Church VA. "I'm skeptical about the government's authority to dictate to the church in this way," he said. "There is a cultural elitism in America that would like to keep religion privately comforting but publicly irrelevant! But if our biblical faith does not inform and shape our thinking on public policy and guide us in whom to vote for, we are simply failing in our responsibility as followers of Christ. We won't always agree with one another, but it is unthinkable that followers of Christ wouldn't evaluate candidates' policies in light of the Word of God."

Prior to the ADF designated Sunday encouraging pastors to defy the ban on political endorsements by churches, Yates said he did not plan to break the law. "But I could envision a time arising when I would feel that I would be disobeying God not to speak .about some political issue or election."

Now we await the government's next move, will they persecute the pastors that had the courage to stand up to this tyranny? America is watching.

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