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Churches Are Tax Exempt Because They Benefit Society, Not So Their Speech Can Be Silenced

By Natalie Wyman posted on:
October 17, 2017

As Congress looks to tackle a wide variety of proposed reforms to the tax code, it is vital that our representatives examine a section of the code well due for an overhaul: the Johnson Amendment.

While the government exempts certain not-for-profit organizations from tax requirements – organizations that operate exclusively for “religious, charitable, scientific … or educational purposes” – the Johnson Amendment inserts a quiet requirement that these organizations refrain from involvement in political campaigns.

This raises an important moral and constitutional question: Should these nonprofits, including churches, be forced to trade their political voices for a tax status?

Let’s start by examining why the government provides this exemption in the first place.

At its core, organizations like churches receive tax exemption because of the services they provide to the American public free of charge. Releasing these organizations of the financial burden of taxes encourages further donations and provides more funding to these organizations, which in turn is reinvested in the communities.

Nonprofits enrich our communities by providing education, aid, and spiritual guidance. And there is no better example of this than the aid provided by churches during times of crisis.

Federal and state governments alike coordinate extensively with faith-based groups during natural disasters in order to more efficiently and effectively provide relief. In fact, faith-based organizations make up roughly 75% of the alliance National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster with which FEMA coordinated during Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana.

Furthermore, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Disaster Relief is the nation’s third-largest relief organization, with nearly 95,000 members across the country trained in disaster relief.

And these churches do not only offer resources for the physical needs of those affected by natural disasters; they also provide a listening ear and a message of hope for those struggling through the aftermath.

It’s hard to imagine with everything churches provide to our country that the government would put unconstitutional conditions on their tax exemption. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

By prohibiting tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from speaking out during political campaigns, the Johnson Amendment forces churches to maintain silence on important biblical issues that affect their congregations, inserting the IRS as a regulator of the content of a pastor’s sermons.

The Johnson Amendment needs a legislative fix: the Free Speech Fairness Act. The Free Speech Fairness Act (FSFA) amends the Johnson Amendment to allow all 501(c)(3) entities to speak on political issues that occur in “the ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities.”

This fix allows pastors to preach in support of biblical principles like life and marriage without fear of retribution from the IRS.

Opponents of FSFA argue that if churches feel a need to get political, they should just relinquish their tax-exempt status. But why should we place unconstitutional speech restrictions on organizations so beneficial to society that the government incentivizes supporting them through a tax benefit?

It is time for Congress to provide relief to these organizations. We are asking pastors around the country to sign on to a letter asking Congress to pass the Free Speech Fairness Act and fix the Johnson Amendment. Join us in asking Congress to overhaul the tax code and put an end to IRS intimidation and censorship.

Sign the Letter

Natalie Wyman

Natalie Wyman

Legal Assistant I

Natalie worked as a lobbyist at the Family Foundation of Virginia and a grassroots associate at Heritage Action for America before joining the Alliance Defending Freedom team.