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Response from Michael D. Peabody

Discussion Question: Is The 1954 Johnson Amendment Constitutional?

In 1954 Congress passed the Johnson Amendment (prepared by Lyndon Johnson) which said that non-profits (including churches) could not speak in favor of political candidates. Is this constitutional?


The "Johnson Amendment" prohibits most church pastors from making declarations "in support of or in opposition to candidates for public office." Is this limitation on freedom of speech constitutional? One thing is clear – the electioneering ban is not rooted in Jeffersonian views of separation of church and state or the First Amendment, which are silent on issues involving the interplay between tax-exempt organizations including churches and charities, and the Internal Revenue Code. Under section 501(c)(3) of that code, churches and other charitable organizations are exempt from income tax and entitled to receive tax-deductible contributions from donors.

Instead, it is based on an agreement that non-profits make with the IRS. In order to obtain 501(c)(3) status, applying organizations must represent that they will not participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or against, any candidate for political office. A contributor to a church that does not sign up for 501(c)(3) status can still deduct those contributions from his or her income but if that contributor is audited, he or she has the burden of establishing that the church meets the qualifications of a section 501(c)(3) organization.

On October 2, 2011, as part of "Freedom Sunday" which is promoted by the Alliance Defense Fund, 539 ministers throughout the United States defied the IRS rule and identified where candidates stood on the issues and "where followers of Jesus Christ should stand." ADF claims that before 1954 when the Johnson Amendment was passed, preachers could promote candidates from the pulpit and that the effect since then has been to "silence and chill the pastors."

So far, it does not appear that the IRS has taken action to revoke the 501(c)(3) status of these churches. In fact, such cases are exceedingly rare. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to address this issue head-on although a lower court, the District Court for the District of Columbia in Branch Ministries v. Rossotti (http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-utl/branch_ministries.pdf) did find that the IRS could revoke the tax-exempt status of a religious organization that bought and published a newspaper ad in the New York Times and the Washington Post that specifically and clearly argued against a political candidate. The ad said, "Bill Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God's laws." The ad concluded, "How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?" At the bottom, the church was named along with an invitation for readers to make a "tax-deductible donation" to pay for the advertisement.

A church that loses its tax exempt status will operate like any other corporation for purposes of tax liability. They would be able to speak out freely but some contributors may be less inclined to donate if they cannot take the tax deduction.

If 501(c)(3) organizations were suddenly able to engage in partisan politicking, and donors were able to give on a tax-deductible basis, donors could ostensibly deduct currently non-deductible political donations simply by funneling these monies through churches. Churches would not only pass the collection plate for their religious mission, but churches would also be able to use these tax-deductible donations on behalf of particular candidates.

Large churches could bankroll entire political campaigns and receive favorable treatment from those who support them. Politicians could visit with church pastors and lobby them for their campaign support. The lines of mutual respect between church and state could be erased as churches become nothing more than overt political mouthpieces during campaign season.

Because of the tax advantages, it is not inconceivable that churches would become a primary venue for gathering votes as political goals were interwoven with spiritual teachings. A politician who ignored this new reality would be at a distinct disadvantage.

In response, many congregations might, as a matter of policy, refuse to allow the politicking from their pulpits but may perceive that they lose the favor of politicians who receive their support elsewhere. In churches that permitted politicking, congregants of different political persuasions than their clergy might feel alienated and leave.

As it now stands, churches and charities are welcome to speak truth to power on the issues that matter - from opposing human trafficking, to lobbying for workplace accommodation for religious employees, to pursuing justice. Religious organizations just cannot support or oppose particular candidates or political parties. This is a good thing.

Photo of Michael D. Peabody

Author: Michael D. Peabody

Michael D. Peabody is an attorney in Los Angeles, California. He has practiced in the fields of workers compensation and employment law, including workplace discrimination and wrongful termination. He is a frequent contributor to Liberty magazine and editsReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent website dedicated to celebrating liberty of conscience. Mr. Peabody is a favorite guest on Liberty’s weekly radio show, “Lifequest Liberty.”

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