To listen to clergy on the Religious Right you would think that government agents were sitting in the pews of houses of worship across the country ready to make arrests at the first sign of political rhetoric. You would think that silencing clergy was the top priority of the US government. They have stoked fears so far beyond reality that we now have a candidate for president suggesting that we revoke the so-called Johnson Amendment – the 1954 change to the tax code, authored by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, which prevents groups from using tax-exempt funds to influence elections – in order to ensure the voices of my fellow clergy will be heard loud and clear.
Now let’s acknowledge the cold harsh reality. Clergy can stand at the pulpit and say just about anything they want without government interference. The only thing they can’t do is make a political endorsement while they are on the clock. Most clergy, I am sad to say, have more to fear from their lay leaders than they do the government.
Those on the Religious Right know this as well as I do. The reality is, while they would love to make endorsements from the pulpit, that’s not really what this is about. That’s just the wedge they are using to open the floodgates. You see, “making endorsements from the pulpit” is just shorthand for using a house of worship’s resources to aid a political campaign. That could be including an endorsement in your weekly bulletin, or it could mean raising funds through the church to launch a nationwide campaign promoting a candidate.
If you think that sounds far-fetched, remember that while houses of worship are currently barred from making political endorsements, no such restriction exists on ballot initiatives. Take for example the Mormon church, which in 2008 poured $22 million into the effort to pass the anti-marriage equality proposition 8 in California.
All tax-exempt nonprofits, including houses of worship and your favorite charities, are restricted from endorsing candidates for elected office – but why? Known as 501(c)(3) organizations for the section of the tax code that created them, these nonprofits are not only exempt from paying taxes on the money they raise, but donors to these groups can deduct donations from their taxes.
In exchange for this important tax advantage, which makes it easier for tax-exempt groups to raise donations but reduces tax revenue for federal, state and local government, these groups are restricted from using their funds to help elect or defeat politicians. Were this not the case, the government would be subsidizing partisan politicking instead of charitable activities.
This standard applies to houses of worship just as it applies to the local food bank, a foundation that supports disease-fighting research, animal welfare groups, private nonprofit universities and both the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts. This crucial fact is all too often left out of the debate over the Johnson Amendment.
Notwithstanding claims by Religious Right leaders, the Johnson Amendment does not restrict the freedom of speech of anyone, including clergy, on any subject. Your pastor may put a campaign bumper sticker on his personal vehicle, place a yard sign in front of her home and even serve as a surrogate for a favored candidate – as long as they do not do it from the pulpit or in the name of a house of worship.
If a tax-exempt nonprofit, including a house of worship, wants to engage in partisan politicking, it can do so by giving up its tax-exempt status. Instead of being a 501(c)(3), it will be a 501(c)(4) group like the NRA or Sierra Club. The group will still be a nonprofit and avoid paying taxes on money it raises, but donations will no longer be tax-deductible.
My fellow clergy and I are free to speak our minds and debate the issues of the day from the pulpit, and we can endorse political candidates as individuals or through a 501(c)(4) organization. We just can’t use tax-exempt, government-subsidized dollars to influence elections.
Clergy may preach, teach or advocate about the values that inform a faithful approach to human sexuality, reproductive health concerns, foreign policy, the economy, civil discourse or even voting rights without running afoul of any law or regulation. Political figures may address religious gatherings if the subject is unrelated to a campaign, and candidates afforded equal access may do so even if the subject is related to the campaign.
It’s time to set aside the conspiracy theories and wild claims of a small but vocal group that wants to plunge tax-exempt houses of worship into the partisan fray. No one is being muzzled, and no preacher, pastor, priest, rabbi or imam can be arrested for saying something from the pulpit – heaven forbid!