Recent focus upon IRS restrictions against “electioneering” and “political activism” in pulpits from both opponents (atheists) and proponents (Christian activists) misses the real path of pulpit freedom. As such, the best solution for freedom preaching remains to the side, silenced, in all the discussion.
Atheist groups are pushing the IRS to crack down on violations of the so-called “Johnson Amendment”—a 1954 revision to 501(c)3 regulations which forbids covered tax-exempt foundations from using a “substantial part” of their activities to influence legislation, or from participating or intervening in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
The push is directed against the “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” initiative of a Christian legal group which advocates testing the boundaries of the Johnson Amendment. The group originally seemed stoked to violate the regulations in an attempt to fuel a constitutional lawsuit. Since then, it seems to have compromised a bit, its first resource now being listed as “Preaching an Election Sermon within IRS Guidelines.”
The atheistic Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is now touting the fruits of its push against “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”: a legal settlement with the IRS in which it was agreed that Behemoth would begin enforcement of 501(c)3 restrictions against political activism in church pulpits, where it had previously been slack. According to a report from lifesitenews.com, “The IRS has agreed to pay closer attention to what is said in houses of worship.”
But like I said, both sides are misguided. The atheists are misguided because not all talk about politics is indeed forbidden by the restrictions. The only actual restrictions are against using a “substantial part” of the church’s activity in an attempt specifically to influence legislation. This alone leaves open the possibility of some targeted preaching against even specific legislation, just not a “substantial part.” Secondly, and more famously, the regulations forbid involvement in a political campaign or particular candidate. Well, OK. Pulpits can still preach on explicitly political issues and even campaigns without crossing those boundaries necessarily. These restrictions actually leave a tremendous amount of room for engaging political and social topics from a biblical view and much more.
But more importantly, the Christian side of this debate doesn’t do much better. First, because they focus on the wrong legal angle, and secondly, because they are neglecting the true path to pulpit freedom which is outside of 501(c)3 status altogether.
I won’t walk through all of the argumentation of the Christian legal group by any means, but only focus on the most common one: the allegation that 501(c)3 regulations violate the pulpit’s First Amendment rights. No they don’t. It’s simple. First Amendment rights do not exist where a person or organization voluntarily surrenders them.
For example, if you accept a government job demanding certain security secrets, you have waived your rights to “free speech” in that area. You are not legally free to disclose the secrets. You can, but you will be prosecuted. Likewise, if you sign any “Non-Disclosure Agreement,” you have similarly waived your right to the extent of the terms of agreement.
And likewise, if your church files for 501(c)3 status when it is not required to do so, then it has voluntarily waived its right to the extent that the regulations demand. And to be sure, 501(c)3 status is voluntary for churches.
It was this truth I was attempting to communicate in a previous article. I reproduce some of it at length here:
First, churches don’t need 501c3 status to be tax exempt, they are automatically exempt by virtue of being a church.
Second, churches don’t need 501c3 status in order for their members’ contributions to be tax-deductible.
Why then is it almost universal practice for churches to incorporate and seek 501c3 status? It’s nothing but an unneeded sense of assurance from the government.
Marcus Owens is an attorney who was formerly the head of the IRS tax-exempt division in DC. He has since been defending churches against the IRS. He confirms the sentiments above: churches don’t need 501c3. As to why churches so frequently line up to file for what they don’t need, he said, “Mostly it’s just a matter of extra reassurance.”
So, nothing is actually gained by receiving 501c3 status. On the contrary: much is lost. Peter Kershaw has researched this topic extensively. He notes the following ways in which churches actually hamstring themselves by 501c3 status:
When a church accepts the 501c3 status, that church:
- Waives its freedom of speech.
- Waives its freedom of religion.
- Waives its right to influence legislators and the legislation they craft.
- Waives its constitutionally guaranteed rights.
- Is no longer free to speak to the vital issues of the day.
- Becomes controlled by a spirit of fear that if it doesn’t toe the line with the IRS it will lose its tax-exempt status.
- Becomes a State-Church.
A corporation is by definition a creature of the state. By leaving free church status and incorporating, a church is making itself not a free creature of Christ, the king of kings, but a creature of the civil government. This is actively mingling church and state, and worse, subjecting the church to the state.
When the church goes further and receives 501c3 status, it is doing the same thing at the federal level: subjecting Christ to Caesar. Worse yet, such a church is effectively signing a contract not to preach the Bible in many ways in the public square in “exchange” for the promise of tax exemption—a right it already has to begin with.
This is a federal flim-flam pure and simple. It was a flim-flam designed and promoted by Lyndon Johnson in 1954 to eliminate the influence of conservative churches in the political arena in America. Churches need not apply for this right, and yet are led to believe otherwise. They apply, and they willingly silence themselves in the process.
This being the case, there are only two ways to avoid the IRS restrictions. (1) Change the 501(c)3 laws. This could be done the same way they were changed to what they are now: by act of Congress. Or (2) don’t file for 501(c)3 status. After all, you don’t have to.
The true path to pulpit freedom, therefore, lies in not filing for the status. Then, and only then, will the First Amendment rights apply. If the IRS comes after you then, then you would have a case.
In the meantime, there is a good side to this new settlement. IRS officials have now agreed to start listening to conservative Christian sermons. That’s great! Some of them may actually get saved, and, who knows? They may actually give up a career in organized crime and come join the liberty movement.
“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1–4).
For now, churches need to be aware that their path to freedom is not within 501(c)3, but outside of it. You don’t need it, and in fact you can only speak freely without it.