By Jay Sekulow
Chief Counsel, American Center for Law and Justice
For the past 48 years, the Internal Revenue Service has been a poorly qualified and often discriminatory watchdog of America's houses of worship - selectively enforcing a law that censors the First Amendment free speech rights of religious institutions.
It all began in 1954 when then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson sought political retribution against an opponent who was assisted in his campaign by two non-profit organizations. As a bill to revise the tax code was being debated on the floor of the Senate, LBJ pushed a little-noticed amendment that barred all tax-exempt groups - including churches -from participating in political activity. The penalty: loss of tax-exempt status. A heavy price to pay for exercising their free speech rights.
The law is a disaster. It violates the First Amendment rights of people of faith. Further, the IRS is selective in its enforcement - often ignoring political involvement from liberals, but targeting conservative churches and ministers like the Church at Pierce Creek in New York that had its tax-exempt status revoked after the pastor placed newspaper advertisements in 1992 calling attention to then-Presidential candidate Bill Clinton's position on critical moral issues like abortion and sexual abstinence outside of marriage.
The bias and discriminatory treatment of the IRS has been acknowledged by even those who have worked at the regulatory agency. In an interview with Insight magazine, former IRS commissioner Don Alexander said: "I think there was selective enforcement during the Clinton years, when a church against Clinton was audited and its exemption revoked, but Clinton and Gore making political speeches from the pulpits . . . has been ignored."
If you don't think the heavy hand of the IRS has created a current of fear and intimidation that ripples through the religious community, consider what one pastor told the Wall Street Journal during the 2000 campaign after he received a warning from the IRS to tone down his political comments. "It has had a chilling effect," said the pastor.
Why should religious organizations be forced and intimidated into taking a hands-off approach to addressing political issues that form the basis of our culture and our direction as a nation?
Why have we put the IRS - which is designed to collect revenue for the general treasure - in the position of being the speech police?
Religious leaders not only have a constitutional right to address the moral issues of the day - many believe they have a responsibility to do so - especially in the context of political campaigns.
This country has a rich and welcomed history of turning to churches and houses of worship during the debate of the great moral issues of the day. Unfortunately, under the current IRS code, they risk losing their tax-exempt status if they speak out.
That's why the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (H.R. 2357) makes sense. The measure is sponsored by Representative Walter B. Jones (R-NC) and has gathered more than 100 co-sponsors. The American Center for Law and Justice, which assisted in the drafting of the bill, is committed to ensuring that those who serve in leadership at America's houses of worship enjoy the same constitutional freedoms and protections afforded to all Americans.
This bill won't result in churches or houses of worship being turned into political machines. It will make it easier, though, for people of faith to speak out about the issues that shape their lives and affect their future.
During these troubling times, free speech is more important than ever - especially in the pulpit. It's a precious freedom worth defending. We have an important opportunity to correct the errors of the past. That's why the Houses of Worship Political Speech Act is so important.
Jay Sekulow is Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, an international public interest law firm that focuses on constitutional law. The ACLJ is headquartered in Virginia Beach, VA and the web site address is www.aclj.org