Churches and other nonprofits long have been forbidden from endorsing political candidates. But erratic enforcement of the law has emboldened supporters of legislation in Congress that would end the restriction. Far from needing to be repealed, the ban on politics in the pulpit ought to be enforced more aggressively.
A bill sponsored by Rep.
Jones' legislation seeks to restore the "1st Amendment rights" of churches, but that's misleading. Churches may have a 1st Amendment right to endorse candidates, but there is no constitutional right to a tax exemption. Congress is free to condition such exemptions — which can be worth millions of dollars — on an agreement by churches and charities to refrain from partisan political activity. And it's the
Unfortunately, enforcement has been minimal, despite highly publicized protests in which some preachers have endorsed or opposed candidates by name during religious services, daring the IRS to sanction them. Paradoxically, the lack of enforcement is cited by some critics as a reason to repeal the law.
Not all critics of the Johnson amendment would abolish it. The Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, comprising religious leaders from several traditions, recently suggested that members of the clergy should be allowed to endorse candidates "in the context of a religious worship." But churches would still be barred from spending tax-deductible contributions on election activities.
The problem with that proposal is that a political endorsement from the pulpit is likely to be influential precisely because it occurs as part of a religious rite. The ban on such endorsements should remain, but the IRS needs to have clearer standards for determining when a preacher has crossed the line. Currently the agency decides whether the Johnson amendment has been violated by considering all "facts and circumstances," an amorphous standard that can lead to time-consuming but inconclusive investigations. That was the case with a 2004 sermon at All Saints Church in Pasadena about George W. Bush and
In a 2007 Supreme Court decision interpreting federal election law, Chief Justice