Compliant Church Equals Silent Pulpit?

Written by Trey Lewis on May 02, 2017 in IRS Compliance

As I spoke recently at one of our Ultimate Church Structure Conferences, I could feel a familiar tension in the room. When pastors began seeing the need to get legally compliant, there was a collective concern for whether a compliant church must have a silent pulpit.

Many ministers are under the impression that if their church applies for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, the government can then control what they preach, but that is not true.

Earlier this year, a bill was introduced to Congress that could have an impact on what you preach and say from the pulpit. This bill is known as the “Free Speech Fairness Act.”

The Free Speech and Fairness Act was introduced to Congress as a remedy to the controversial “Johnson Amendment.” You have probably heard of the Johnson Amendment since its repeal was first mentioned during the presidential campaigns last year and most recently from the president at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Since the Johnson Amendment has been in the news lately, and because it directly affects churches and ministries, I will spend time bringing clarity to what it is, and I will explore why it is so controversial. I will also examine what it means if it is repealed or not.

What is the Johnson Amendment?

In 1954, the Johnson Amendment, enacted by Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, amended the tax code to prevent tax-exempt organizations under section 501(c)(3) from participating in political campaigns, whether for or against a candidate. While the Johnson Amendment was never specifically aimed at churches, they seem to be the main focus of it. 

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The Johnson Amendment was passed by a Republican-majority Congress and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The purpose of the bill was to silence certain nonprofit organizations that were campaigning against Senator Johnson.

Unfortunately, the passing of the Johnson Amendment has led many pastors and church leaders to believe that it restricts their personal First Amendment right to freedom of speech. However, that is not true. The Johnson Amendment has no bearing on what you say as an individual. 

Hence, if this amendment was never specifically aimed at churches and ministries, then why is it so controversial today? 

Why is the Johnson Amendment so controversial?

When initially passed, the Johnson Amendment was not seen as controversial. In fact, many viewed it as a natural part of the separation between Church and state. However, over the past several years, many churches and other tax-exempt organizations have felt as though the “political restraints” of the Johnson Amendment restrict the First Amendment right of their organizations. This is especially so since participating in political avtivities can jeopardize a church’s federal tax-exempt status as a nonprofit.

Therefore, many churches across the country are challenging the IRS and the restriction by openly speaking about political issues from the pulpit.

Open opposition to the Johnson Amendment

A 2016 study conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that nearly two-thirds of church goers (64%) said that they have heard religious leaders speak out on political issues from the pulpit.

Additionally, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a nonprofit law group that focuses on and advocates for religious liberty, sponsors an initiative known as Pulpit Freedom Sunday. 

In a video posted on ADF’s website, Senior Counsel Erik Stanley states that Pulpit Freedom Sunday began in 2008 with 33 pastors who stood in their pulpits and preached sermons, in light of Scripture, that talked about candidates running for office at the time and gave recommendations about those candidates to the congregation. They had these sermons recorded and then they sent them to the IRS.

Stanley continues by saying that since 2008 there have been over 4,000 pastors that have participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, yet not one of those pastors have been investigated or punished as a result of those sermons. 

Please let it be clear, I am not telling you about such efforts as encouragement for you and your church to participate, and I am not telling you to not participate. That is something for you to decide with your church leaders and God. Rather, I mention this to show you that there are those who are actively advocating for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment. 

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Indifference to the repeal of the Johnson Amendment

On the flip side, there seems to be indifference to the repeal of the Johnson Amendment from some churchgoers and church leaders. For instance, in another 2016 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, nearly half (47%) of those polled said churches should be able to express political views, however, slightly more (49%) said that churches should not express political views. 

While this study indicates a near 50/50 split among Americans with regard to churches expressing political views, an overwhelming 66% indicated that they believe churches should not endorse a specific candidate running for office.

Additionally, earlier this year, the National Association of Evangelicals asked evangelical leaders the following question: “Should pastors endorse politicians from the pulpit?” A whopping 89% of respondents answered “no” but also stated, “[T]hey believe the government should not penalize churches or pastors who decide to endorse candidates.”

What happens if the Johnson Amendment gets repealed?

The obvious answer to this question is that pastors and church leaders would be able to openly endorse or oppose a candidate from the pulpit without worry of retribution from the IRS for doing so. Churches would also be able to financially support political campaigns and political organizations. However, keep in mind that this potential opportunity would also be available to other nonprofit organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Perhaps you are thinking, “What does it matter if the Johnson Amendment gets repealed or not, since it seems like the IRS is not taking action anyway?” That is a good thought, and I have my theories for why I believe the IRS is silent on this matter. 

Here are my thoughts:

  1. The IRS wants to stay clear of any constitutional disputes involving the Church and state that would unleash a fury of opposition.
  2. The meaning of the limitation is uncertain. For example, when the IRS uses the word “substantial” regarding political activities, what exactly does the IRS mean? How is one able to measure the substantiality of another’s political participation?
  3. Violation of this prohibition is largely dependent upon facts and circumstances of the church in question.

Although the IRS has been reluctant to enforce its rules on this limitation, it is best practice to familiarize yourself with the parameters in which your church may operate when it comes to political campaign intervention. We will take a look at that next.

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3 ways your church can get involved without jeopardizing its tax exemption

1. Political speech and endorsing a candidate

As the pastor of a church, you cannot make biased comments in official church publications or on behalf of the church. If you choose to speak or write in an individual capacity, it is crucial that you clearly indicate that your comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the church. 

Keep in mind that as an individual you are guaranteed your First Amendment right to voice your opinion. However, it is when you voice your opinion on behalf of the church that the tax-exempt status may be jeopardized.

2. Inviting a political candidate to speak

Many churches invite political candidates to address the congregation during a worship service. When a political candidate is invited to speak at a church or religious event as a candidate, it is important to keep in mind a few general rules in order to avoid political campaign intervention.

  1. If the church extends a speaking invitation to one political candidate, it must also extend an invitation to the other candidates running for the same office.
  2. The church cannot indicate any support for or opposition to a candidate.
  3. Under no circumstances should there be any political fundraising by the church.
  4. The church must always maintain a nonpartisan atmosphere on the premises or at the event where the candidate is present.
  5. The church must clearly indicate the capacity in which the candidate is appearing, and not mention the individual’s political candidacy or the upcoming election in the announcements of the candidate’s attendance at the event. 

3. Voter education guides

During election years, many churches choose to distribute voter guides. These voter guides generally provide information on how all candidates stand with various issues. If your church chooses to issue voter guides during an election year, here are a few basic rules that will help you to avoid political campaign intervention.

  1. Do not compare the candidates’ positions on political topics to that of the church’s positions.
  2. Include a broad range of issues that the candidates would address if elected to political office.
  3. The description of the political issues should be neutral.
  4. All candidates and their views on issues should be included.
  5. The descriptions of a candidate’s position should either be his/her own words in response to questions, or a neutral, unbiased, and complete compilation of all candidates’ positions.

Your church needs to be heard, but first . . .

I think that the Church needs to be heard more now than ever before in the history of this great nation. Although limitations on the political involvement of churches have been imposed, it is not impossible for churches to be involved. However, first you need to know that your church is established on a solid legal foundation. 

I cannot tell you how many times pastors have told me at our conferences, “If I had only known about this before now.”

We are living in a time in which the world needs to hear the message of “the Church” and your city needs to hear the message of your church. As we have said a thousand times at our conferences, it is imperative for the Church to heed the words of Jesus and “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” 

If you have questions about what this means to your church or ministry, please feel free to give us a call at 877-494-4655, or register to join us at one of our upcoming conferences.

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