WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) today introduced legislation to protect free speech rights in America’s churches and houses of worship.
Recently the IRS has called into question the tax-exempt status of churches where church staff has woven politics into their sermons. The Senator’s legislation, known as the Religious Freedom Act of 2006 (S.3957), would guarantee the freedom of religious leaders to discuss political matters without the threat of an IRS investigation, a practice currently in effect. The following are excerpts from the Senator’s statement upon introduction of the bill.
“ … The moral questions of the day are more often than not also fundamental social and political questions—questions that concern what we value as a nation. It is truly astounding that today, in America, religious leaders are banned from any comment on those moral issues. It is not partisan; this ban on speech makes no distinction between the ideological divide of left versus right in America.”
Currently, houses of worship are monitored by the Internal Revenue Service, which reviews the content of sermons and homilies and often relies only on third-party complaints as a basis to move forward with threatening letters and the revocation of an organization’s tax-exempt status, even if the prohibited activities were incidental or unintentional. The IRS also admits that it applies a “coded language” policy to political speech. That is, discussion of a moral issue, if it happens to be a matter discussed in public debates, is a political issue and is consequently banned by the IRS.
The political restrictions for houses of worship date back to the “Johnson Amendment” of 1954, a floor amendment named for then-senator Lyndon Johnson, which placed an absolute ban on political speech by tax exempt organizations. It now silences important comment on the issues of the day. Although the Supreme Court has affirmed and reaffirmed a “profound national commitment” to the proposition that debate on issues should be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” the debate has been unconstitutionally restricted for nearly 50 years.