Adobe
Churches are hoping that they can soon endorse political candidates, if they choose to do so.

Conservative advocates are rallying around new legislation introduced last Wednesday in the House of Representatives that would amend Internal Revenue Service rules barring nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates.

HR6195, known as the Free Speech Fairness Act, was introduced by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) and Rep. Jody Hice (R-Georgia), and would allow 501(c)(3) organizations to legally make statements about political campaigns.

"(The bill would) amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to allow charitable organizations to make statements relating to political campaigns if such statements are made in the ordinary course of carrying out its tax exempt purpose," reads a congressional description.

As Deseret News has reported, under a law referred to as the Johnson Amendment, churches and other charities registered as 501(c)(3) organizations are not permitted to endorse — or campaign against — political candidates.

The idea behind the ban is that these organizations, as tax-exempt entities, shouldn't be involved in swaying elections either way, though the policy has drawn the ire of many pastors who view it as restricting their First Amendment rights.

Furthermore, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has pledged to overturn the Johnson Amendment, with the IRS provision even making its way into the 2016 Republican Party Platform, which also calls for its repeal.

The Free Speech Fairness Act is being heralded by some conservative groups as having the ability to right the Johnson Amendment's purported wrongs.

Erik Stanley, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative law firm that opposes the IRS regulation, penned a blog post explaining what the proposed bill would accomplish, if enacted.

"The bill does not repeal the Johnson Amendment," Stanley wrote. "Instead, it amends the law to allow for speech that is made 'in the ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities.'"

This, he said, would afford pastors the right to speak out on candidates and elections without worrying that they would be in violation of tax law.

And this right wouldn't simply be restricted to churches, as it would extend to any 501(c)(3) organization. Despite offering the freedom to speak out, the bill does not allow for political contributions from these entities.

The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a Christian accrediting organization, issued a statement last week expressing support for HR6195, saying it is in line with recommendations made in 2013 by its own Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations.

The ECFA summarized the bill's intent with the following: "(It) would permit churches and charities to engage in political communications in the course of conducting their regular and customary exempt-purpose activities, so long as they do not spend money incrementally in so doing."

The conservative Family Research Council also jumped on board the Free Speech Fairness Act, with president Tony Perkins saying at a press conference last week that pastors and churches "have been at the forefront of shaping public debate and our choice of public servants" since the nation's founding.

Perkins went on to call for the overturning of the Johnson Amendment's ban on certain forms of political speech, accusing the government of abusing its powers.

"From the IRS's abuse of power in recent years to the subpoenas of sermons in Houston, it's clearly time to rein in government intimidation of free speech," Perkins said. "Pastors should be held accountable to God alone for what they say behind the pulpit, not the IRS."

Others, though, have taken a very different view on the Johnson Amendment.

The Southern Poverty Law Center published an article on conservative groups' most recent move to push back against the Johnson Amendment, and The Atlantic expressed worries back in August that overturning the Johnson Amendment could mean that church funds could potentially go toward elections.

"If the Johnson Amendment were repealed, pastors would be able to endorse candidates from the pulpit, which they’re currently not allowed to do by law," read a piece by The Atlantic's Emma Green.

Proponents of the Free Speech Fairness Act have said political funding would still be off the table under the bill's provisions, though the full text of the measure has not been made available for viewing.

Regardless, others such as Michael De Dora, director of public policy for the Center for Inquiry, have also pushed back against critics of the Johnson Amendment.

De Dora told Deseret News in July that the narrative about the IRS banning political activities of faith leaders and churches is false, and that the Johnson Amendment, instead, "prohibits tax-exempt organizations … from directly or indirectly endorsing or opposing political candidates."

He said churches and faith leaders are free to speak on issues like poverty, abortion, doctor-assisted suicide and other similar matters, but that the endorsements are the sticking point.

According to Alliance Defending Freedom, 4,100 pastors have joined the organization's call to take the Johnson Amendment off the books.

16 comments on this story

The proposed legislation was announced just days before an annual event known as Pulpit Freedom Sunday — a day on which pastors across America preach a political message from the pulpit to protest the Johnson Amendment.

One of the goals of Pulpit Freedom Sunday, which was founded in 2008 and unfolded this year on Oct. 2, has been to spark a legal challenge to the sermons, so that the battle surrounding the Johnson Amendment could finally be hashed out in the courts.

So far, though, the IRS hasn't taken the bait. Read more about the complicated history surrounding the Johnson Amendment.

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com, Twitter: billyhallowell, Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell