Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Freedom of Speech: Clergy Deserve It, Too

In 1954 it was future president Lyndon Baines Johnson, then a senator from Texas, who proposed another amendment that would have the consequence, intended or not, of restricting the free-speech rights of religious leaders. The amendment rendered them unable to speak freely from their pulpits so long as they operated as 501c3 charitable organizatons, which entitled them to receive tax-deductible contributions.

Sen. Johnson inserted into the tax code an amendment that disallowed a (non-profit) 501C3 organization from endorsing or opposing a political candidate.

Although it has been speculated that Johnson was targeting various 501c3 groups that were opposing him, the unintended consequence of Johnson's amendment, not unlike Blaine's, has been to keep people of faith out of the public square and limit their rights by preventing clergy from speaking directly and forthrightly from the pulpit about their views -- including endorsing political candidates -- so long as they operated as a non-profit and received tax-deductible contributions.

The most recent case that has pointed out the absurdity of Johnson's amendment involved All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif., whose pastor George Regas gave a sermon imagining what Jesus Christ might say were he to find himself in a debate with then-presidential candidates George W. Bush and John F. Kerry.
Although the IRS gave up the battle against All Saints in September, the underlying questions still haven't been addressed: Why can't a preacher endorse a political candidate from the pulpit on a Sunday morning? Why should the First Amendment not apply to words that emanate from a church pulpit? What right do government bureaucrats have to restrict the speech of any religious leader?
Today, the practical result of Johnson's amendment remains that religious leaders somehow forfeit their right to free speech when they climb into a pulpit.

The pastor of the liberal All Saints Church in Pasadena should be able to look out at his congregation and urge them to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2008. Conversely, across the country, the pastor of World Harvest Church, Rod Parsley, an outspoken conservative, should be able to endorse the Republican candidate as well.

Contrary to the now-famous assertion by then-Washington Post reporter Michael Weiskopf that people of faith were "poor, uneducated and easy to command," parishioners are perfectly capable of taking into account, without blindly following, endorsements by their religious leaders.

And with churches able to participate widely in American public life by opening charter schools and preachers able to speak freely from the pulpit, all Americans will be freer as they fully exercise their constitutional rights.

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