A comparison of tax-law political speech restrictions between the church and unions
Moses may have received the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai, but here in the United States we have 11. The 11th is: Thou shall not speak up against or endorse a political candidate if you are a church or a non-profit organization. Anyone who breaks that commandment will be involved in a flurry of lawsuits from the ACLU or Americans United for Separation of Church and State. After all, it is common knowledge that the First Amendment of our Constitution firmly prohibits churches or non-profits from engaging in political activity.
The First Amendment states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Perhaps that little bit of common knowledge might be common but it isn’t “knowledge” after all. The history of the first 10 Amendments to our Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, is that they were written to protect the rights of our citizens from government intrusion. Our founders had just fought a bloody revolution to oust a repressive and intrusive government. They did all within their power to guard against such abuses for the new country they were establishing. Among the most revered right was the right to worship according to one’s personal beliefs and liberty of conscience. They wrote the First Amendment to protect the church from the government. Today you might think just the opposite. This was not always the case. Prior to 1954 non-profits and churches were free to exercise their political voice. It is fair to say that in the 1700s, members of the clergy were a motivating factor in this country’s fight for freedom. Images of men in black robes bolting from the pulpit to join the forces of the Revolutionary War are not Hollywood fantasies but the reality of pre-Revolutionary America, which gained them the title of The Black Brigade.
Things changed in 1954 when then senator of Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson, proposed and was instrumental in passing House Resolution 235 through his manipulative use of “cooperative” court injunctions. This has come to be known as The Johnson Amendment of 1954. He did this because when he was running for re-election to the Senate, he was strongly opposed by two non-profit organizations. Johnson managed to pass this gag order and silence his opposition, but in the process he silenced the voice of the church as well. Although Johnson originally intended that the gag order affect only non-profits, churches (who are non-profits) also felt the impact. The 1954 Johnson Amendment simply prohibited non-profits from endorsing or opposing candidates. Should they violate this provision, they would lose their tax exempt status, resulting in the loss of many tax breaks – not the least of which is the ability of their congregants to deduct their tithes and offerings from their income as a tax exemption. Today, in fear of losing their tax-exempt status and all that goes along with it, churches not only forfeit their political endorsements, they often willingly forfeit their political voice as well – leaving America without its voice of conscience.
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On the other hand, no such amendment was ever passed that silenced the political voice of unions in America. Today unions not only speak out for and against candidates, they also financially contribute to the campaigns of those they favor. While churches cannot speak out against or for candidates under threat of their congregants losing their tax exemption, unions are free to speak out against or for candidates while their members are free to deduct their union dues from their income tax. This seems to be illogical and duplicitous – after all, we have always heard that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
Therefore, either churches should be able to endorse candidates and continue to enjoy their tax exemptions, or the unions should not be able to endorse candidates and continue to enjoy their tax exemptions. One way or another, the playing field should be equal. The way the law stands now, not only is it not equal, but it is unconstitutional. If you reread the First Amendment previously cited in this article, you will see that The Johnson Amendment violates the First Amendment in two specific instances:
- Congress has made a law prohibiting the free exercise of religion; and
- The Johnson Amendment has abridged the churches’ freedom of speech.
Lyndon B. Johnson successfully silenced the voice of his opposition to further his own career. But we must do our best to restore that voice to protect our freedoms and our liberty of conscience.
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