In the early 1950s, socialist US Senator Lyndon B. Johnson found himself facing steep opposition from Christians throughout the state of Texas. Pastors were warning their congregations about the dangers of re-electing Johnson. Like any good socialist, Johnson was not going to tolerate anyone using their First Amendment rights to speak out against him or any other socialist.
In 1954, he introduced a bill that tied political silence with non-profit tax status. Often referred to as the Johnson Amendment, his bill changed the IRS code for non-profits. The IRS website explains it, saying:
“The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations”
“Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”
“Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.”
“On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”
“The Internal Revenue Service provides resources to exempt organizations and the public to help them understand the prohibition. As part of its examination program, the IRS also monitors whether organizations are complying with the prohibition.”
In other words, if churches wanted to keep their non-profit tax status, their pastors have to keep politically silent. They cannot warn their congregations against the dangers of any candidate or political party.
The atheist group, Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against the IRS to force them to start enforcing churches to shut up or lose their non-profit tax status. The IRS has settled the lawsuit with a promise to the atheist to start investigating churches to see if they are violating their terms of the Johnson Amendment.
The Political Activities Referral Committee is an agency within the IRS designed to investigate reported violations of the Johnson Amendment. According to Kristina Arriaga, Executive Director of The Becket Fund:
“The IRS informed the Freedom from Religion Foundation that there are 99 churches alleged to have violated this Johnson Amendment, and they are under investigation.”
The Johnson Amendment should be ruled unconstitutional since most of the news, including political news was dispensed from the pulpits of churches around early America. At the time of the Revolutionary War, the call to arms was made from hundreds of pulpits around the colonies. For over a century, politicians would speak from the pulpits as they campaigned for votes. This was done since churches were a primary meeting place for many towns.
I would love to see someone legally challenge the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment and force a Supreme Court ruling declaring it a violation of the First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of religion.