WASHINGTON – A debate at the National Press Club, Wednesday, centered on the question of whether pastors should be able to endorse candidates or say whatever they want about politics from the pulpit.
Ben Bull of the Alliance Defense Fund, the Christian legal group that sponsored the debate, said pastors’ free speech shouldn’t be censored, but that’s what present law does.
A 1954 IRS code provision called the Johnson Amendment threatens a church’s tax-exempt status when its pastor goes too far politically.
“[It creates] government-favored churches which remain silent and receive tax benefits and churches disfavored by the government because they rebuke leaders and speak out on elections and candidates,” Bull explained.
He labeled the amendment unconstitutional and asked, “Do we really want the kind of government surveillance of church sermons that’s required to enforce the Johnson Amendment?”
But Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said it’s only fair if churches get special tax exemptions, they should have to accept certain restrictions.
“To allow religious groups to do whatever they want gives them a special right accorded to no one else,” he argued.
Tax expert Donald Tobin of Ohio State University said when churches jump into politics they have to accept the same financial rules as everyone else.
“What they can’t do is then say to me ‘I have a First Amendment right to speak and I’m entitled to a subsidy from the federal government for that speech,'” he said.