For the past 54 years, the IRS tax code has prevented churches from involving themselves in political affairs. But is this an infringement of the churches’ First Amendment rights to free speech? Does permitting churches to speak on political issues interfere with the so-called “separation of church and state”? And why has it only been the past 54 years that there has been this prohibition?
President Lyndon Johnson… we have so many things to thank him for: The failure of “the war on poverty,” the war in Vietnam, tax-gluttons Medicare & Medicaid, and getting the federal government deeply financially involved in the education system. A New Deal Democrat, his plan for the Great Society is costing us countless billions in wasted tax revenue every year.
But one thing about his political career rarely gets mentioned…
When running for his Senate seat, he was strongly opposed by a non-profit organization (that wasn’t a church.) Not known as one to forget a grudge, Johnson decided to get even. So in 1954, he proposed an amendment to the IRS tax code that would silence non profits’ influence upon public policy. Johnson sugar-coated his poison pill through deception: add churches to the list of organizations that can get 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. Who wouldn’t want that? What politician would want to be seen as the guy who wants to tax churches? The amendment passed without debate. But in so doing, Johnson shackled churches to one of the qualifications of 501(c)(3) status:
Currently, the law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
— Source: IRS website
As a result, churches who file for 501(3)(c) status are giving up their right to free political speech. Contrary to popular belief, churches are not required to file, but most do, because of ignorance of the tax laws or recommendations by an accountant. Churches have never been taxable, and are expressly and automatically exempted from being taxable, according to IRS Code § 508(c)(1)(A). Further, they are not required to file IRS Form 1023 (to apply for tax-exempt status,) according to IRS Publication 557. Finally, according to IRS Publication 526, donations to churches are automatically qualified as deductible contributions.
Further, forcing churches to restrict their speech means that churches fall under the jurisdiction of United States law, which is founded in Constitutional law. If churches fall under United States law, then prohibiting their speech violates the First Amendment which clearly states that “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech […]”. The passage of the tax code laws are clearly unconstitutional.
It is our position that it is not only is it legal for churches to influence the congregation, it is essential that they do so. Part of the purpose of religious leaders is to interpret scripture and apply it to every day life, including the selection of political leaders who make and enforce laws that may run counter to the beliefs of the church. It is for that reason, that we at FiveBoxes find it essential that churches be afforded the free political speech guaranteed to everyone by the First Amendment.
Some argue that this will lead to corruption in churches. Others argue that they go to church to learn the teachings of their faith and not to listen to political rhetoric. The thing to keep in mind is that churches and their leaders should have the freedom to decide if they want to discuss political issues, just as the congregation is free to change churches that engages in — or abstains from — political discourse. The point is that churches and parishioners should be free to choose if they want to hear religious-based endorsement or opposition of political candidates of every level.
In addition, it is essential for the continued survival of this great nation for our leaders to be moral people. George Washington in his farewell address stated:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?
Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.
Encourage your religious leaders to investigate this issue on their own. If they find as we do, they should join the growing number of churches who — supported by the Alliance Defense Fund — are protesting the IRS tax law by speaking out to their congregations on September 28th. The future of our country depends upon moral leadership at all levels of government.