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Editorial: Protecting the freedom of preach
Repealing limits on churches’ political speech aligns with First Amendment ideals
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The pulpit and pews inside the chapel of First Baptist Gainesville in Gainesville, on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017. - photo by David Barnes

One of the items tucked into the Republicans’ tax reform bill passed by the House and now considered by the Senate is a repeal of a longtime ban on political endorsements by religious organizations.

The Johnson Amendment, created in 1954 by then Sen. Lyndon Johnson, bans tax-exempt nonprofits from being overtly political in supporting candidates and parties. Churches and other such groups found in violation of the law risk losing their tax-free status.

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing the Internal Revenue Service to ignore enforcing the law. Now Congress is looking to repeal it completely within the tax bill.

As it is, the law is all but impossible to enforce and thus largely symbolic. Despite open defiance from some pastors over the years, there are few documented cases of a church losing its tax exemption as a result. Still, it has become a hot button First Amendment argument for those on both sides of the political divide.

The crossroads of politics and faith was the subject of arecent study by University of North Georgia professor Matthew Boedy to be published in the academic journal “Sermon Studies” based at Marshall University. In it, he reviewed 47 sermons from 14 states and Washington, D.C., around the 2016 presidential election to determine just how politically oriented churches were at the time. He found that nearly two-thirds of pastors mentioned the election in some way.

That’s not surprising. Church sermons frequently tie longtime scriptural contexts to current events relevant to modern life, and nothing was more top of mind than last year’s election.

However, Boedy found only 3 of 11 pastors in Hall County discussed the election afterward. That was contrary to the findings overall, and he said may indicate pastors in more conservative areas perhaps “didn’t see the election in foreboding terms” as others may have.

“The wide array of comments show that while the election of 2016 may have had one clear political outcome, what it meant — what it is — to American churches remains complex,” he wrote. “These studies then show the overwhelming aim of sermons in American Christianity remains teaching the Christian life, even in times of national crisis and change.”

That fits with what we’ve observed here. Pastors, in most cases, seek to douse the flames of discord stirred by politics, not fan them. Most pastors Boedy interviewed, and those we feature each Saturday in our Minister’s Message column on the Life page, seem to take a big-picture view of how faith and politics co-exist and apply a responsible approach that doesn’t tilt too far into partisanship. Yet shouldn’t those who choose to do so be allowed to make their case and let their parishioners decide if it’s appropriate?

It’s worth noting that while a Democrat proposed the Johnson Amendment and Republicans are now looking to scuttle it, it’s really a nonpartisan issue. Though white evangelical churches that tilt heavily toward conservative politics are pushing for the repeal, African-American pastors who lean Democratic would be just as free to endorse or condemn from the pulpit.

The same should apply to other nonprofits affected by the law. Free speech shouldn’t come with strings attached merely because of an organization’s tax-exempt status.

Those who favor keeping the amendment claim it puts up a bulwark against political money being funneled through churches to take advantage of their tax status. More than 4,000 church leaders signed onto a letter opposing the Johnson amendment’s repeal on claims it “would harm houses or worship, which are not identified or divided by partisan lines.”

That might be a valid argument if the law were frequently enforced to head off such abuse, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Like so many laws, rules and regulations at the federal level, it seems designed to avoid a potential worst-case scenario. Perhaps their concerns could be addressed by alternative legislation that controls such money laundering efforts by targeting political groups rather than churches. Even then, church leaders have the power to keep such influences in check and not become a vehicle for anyone bent on exploiting them.

We argued on this page a few weeks ago against the push in Georgia to create a “religious liberty” law to protect those who run afoul of the law over matters of faith. We believe the First Amendment’s vow to not interfere with the “free exercise” of religion nor establish one through law is sufficient to decide such cases, and that the federal government should stay out of faith matters whenever possible.

That same idea applies here. Churches, ministers and their flocks should be free to police themselves without the prying eyes of government peering in through the stained glass. Pastors should have a First Amendment right not only to say what they want but go as far as they desire in endorsing political candidates or topics. Let church members decide for themselves if such is proper.

There is, after all, a reference to the intersection of faith and government in the New Testament itself. In Mark 12:17, Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It seems wise to stick to that course for any and all laws that are aimed at governing religious expression.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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