Churches concerned about Internal Revenue Service intervention if they engage in political speech should take a look at a proposed federal bill that promises fewer restrictions, the bill’s backers say.
“No tax exemption can be based on a requirement that a church or any
other non-profit organization give up a constitutionally protected
freedom, including free speech,” Alliance Defending Freedom senior
counsel Erik Stanley said Sept. 29. “With regard to churches, they can
decide for themselves what they should or shouldn’t say from the pulpit.
Americans don’t need the IRS to be the referee.”
Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Jody Hice (R-Ga.) have introduced the
Freedom of Speech Fairness Act, which claims to restore free speech and
religious freedom to churches and other nonprofits. It would allow
churches to make political statements in the ordinary course of the
organization’s regular and customary activities, and if any expenditures
on such statements are minimal.
The bill would ensure that a minister may make a comment about a
political candidate or issue as part of a sermon. It would also allow a
charity that sends out a monthly newsletter to occasionally include
comments on political issues or candidates, according to Rep. Scalise’s
The bill maintains some restrictions. It would not allow non-profits
to create an entirely new mailing campaign dedicated solely to political
information. It would not allow non-profit organizations or churches to
engage in political activities outside the scope of their normal
tax-exempt work. They also could not contribute to political activities
Stanley spoke in support of the bill, contrasting it with the 1954
Lyndon Johnson, who would later go on to become
president, backed legislation as a U.S. Senator to bar non-profits from
participation in any political campaign on behalf of or against any
candidate for public office. That rule is still in place.
For Stanley, the Freedom of Speech Fairness Act is a needed corrective.
“The IRS has no business acting as the speech police of any
non-profit organization, as its many scandals over recent years have
made clear,” he said. “This bill corrects an unconstitutional
restriction put in place in 1954 that was never intended to affect
churches and other non-profit groups but has been used to intimidate
them ever since.”
“By removing the threat of an IRS investigation and potential
penalties based simply, for example, on what a pastor says from the
pulpit, this bill brings the law into conformity with the First
Amendment,” Stanley said.
Rep. Scalise’s office said that present law creates a “chilling effect” on religious institutions’ speech.
In response to a 2012 lawsuit settlement with the Freedom from
Religion Foundation, the IRS created a unit called the Political
Activity Referral Committee. It identified 99 churches for “potential
impermissible political campaign intervention activities.”
Groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State often
send letters to pastors warning them about the tax regulations.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of General Counsel
has offered guidelines to Catholic organizations on political activity
The July 2016 edition of the guidelines runs to 44 pages. It offers
careful rules concerning candidate forums, debates, photo-ops and
facility rentals at churches and other Catholic organizations.
The guidelines are relevant to non-profit Catholic media
organizations, including CNA’s parent organization the EWTN Global
“Prudence dictates that Catholic periodicals reject columns that
endorse, support or oppose candidates,” the bishops’ document states. It
notes that Catholic news publications should avoid crossing the legal
threshold of attempting “to promote or oppose a candidate through
editorial policy” or through selective acceptance of political
Alliance Defending Freedom organizes protests of the tax regulations in its Pulpit Freedom Sunday events.
The U.S. bishops’ guidelines caution against Catholic churches’
participation in the event, saying it could cause problems with the IRS
“If the IRS determines that an organization has violated this
absolute prohibition against political campaign intervention, the IRS
may revoke the organization’s tax-exempt status, including its ability
to receive tax-deductible contributions,” the guidelines say.