Monday, February 6, 2017

The Johnson Amendment

The senior editor at The Federalist, David Harsanyi, offers a compelling argument in support of President Trump's promise to push Congress to rescind the Johnson amendment which prohibits tax-exempt organizations like churches from engaging in political advocacy.

Harsanyi is a libertarian and an atheist. He's neither a Trump partisan nor does he have an ecclesiastical stake in the issue. His argument is based solely on libertarian principle. Here are some excerpts but the interested reader should go to the link and read the entire piece:
The Johnson Amendment — a law forbidding religious organizations from engaging in political activities without losing their tax-exemption status — is an inexplicable attack on free expression; an illiberal hat-trick undermining the Free Speech Clause, Free Exercise Clause, and Establishment Clause. It was created specifically to inhibit debate by forcing churches to choose between free expression and faith.

One also imagines that the folks writing the First Amendment didn’t expect their pastors would be monitored by a central government agency and forced to watch what they say in the pulpit. Yet, ignoring our rich tradition of religious activism, which includes the abolitionist movement, we’ve normalized the idea that pastors, priests, and rabbis should avoid talking about candidates, even when those candidates attack foundational ideas of faith. We now task the IRS with monitoring every utterance in every church by every religious organization in the United States, and then deciding which of those thoughts constitute acceptable speech or “issue advocacy.”

The Johnson Amendment empowers government to discriminate purely on the content of speech. So, for example, a pastor can say “Senators who fail to support school choice will soon find themselves in the fiery depths of hell, forever” but not “Candidate Al Franken will soon find himself in the fiery depths of hell, forever.” Imagine such laws dictating speech in publicly funded universities — or anywhere else, for that matter.

Political candidates, by the way, function under no such restrictions, and can be as critical of Catholicism or Mormonism or Islam as they like. Yet church leaders can’t explicitly react. And while religions have institutional positions on many major political issues, from abortion to gay marriage to refugee bans, their leaders are specifically incentivized by the state to avoid debating the people who make laws governing those issues.

Moreover, as far as I know, the Free Speech Clause does not come with an asterisk and a set of conditions for participation. The argument I hear most often in defense of the Johnson Amendment goes something like this: “What about separation of church and state, you theocratic nut! Why should I subsidize the church’s speech?”

Don’t join one, and you won’t. I don’t.
There's more at the link. Despite the Johnson amendment, proposed in 1954 by then Sen. Lyndon Johnson to adjust the Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3) to prohibit campaign speech by nonprofits and tax-exempt churches, the perception has been that minority churches have been largely given a de facto exemption by the IRS, but predominately white churches have not. Rather than demand that everyone be held to the same anti-liberty standard, perhaps we should follow Harsanyi's suggestion and just do away with the standard.