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FIRST-PERSON: Churches & tax exemptions

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–The U.S. House of Representatives squelched the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (H.R. 2357) Oct. 2. The legislation to amend the IRS code restricting churches from intervening in a political campaign on behalf of individual candidates was defeated 239-178.

Individuals and groups hailing the House decision believe the representatives have saved churches from themselves. The assertion, by those opposing H.R. 2357, is that allowing houses of worship free reign in the area of politics would ultimately destroy the church. So, the benevolent government must regulate some activities of churches lest, even one, commit partisan suicide.

Oh, praise be the wonderful, benevolent and glorious federal government for looking out for the best interest of the church. Without this sort of restrictive handholding, a house of worship might rush headlong into political traffic without looking both ways and get flattened. As a pastor, I know I sleep better at night knowing the IRS is looking over my shoulder.

Opponents of H.R. 2357 would have us believe that the restriction on churches partisan political activity is as old as the United States. The truth is the ban on political activity was added to Section 501(c)(3) of the IRS code in 1954 by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson. The insertion of the restriction was achieved via a floor amendment to the Revenue Act of 1954. There were no hearings and no congressional record was developed to establish the need for an absolute ban.

Though many observers believe Johnson’s motive in introducing the amendment was to silence some of his opponents, there are those who maintain the restriction is the government looking out for the best interest of churches. One church watchdog group maintains the federal tax law prohibiting churches from engaging in partisan politicking is to protect the integrity of the church and the democratic process. Either this particular group does not know the history of the IRS restriction and Johnson’s involvement with it, or they have their own agenda to push. I suspect it is the latter.

I wonder, how did churches manage to maintain their integrity in respect to political matters prior to 1954? Without the government benevolently restricting political speech, how in the world did churches refrain from offending public officials and/or parishioners? It is amazing that the church in America survived until 1954 without the government’s help in policing its public political pronouncements.

It cannot be stressed enough that the 1954 amendment banning political speech dealt only with a church’s ability to endorse or oppose individual candidates for public office. It did not, and does not, restrict a church’s freedom to speak out on issues that are social or moral in nature. In that respect Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”

The church must call attention at all times, not just election time, to issues the Bible declares are harmful to a society. Immorality and impurity of all kinds practiced and tolerated weaken a nation. At the same time the church must also sound a clarion call to righteousness among citizens and leaders.

The 1954 amendment to the IRS code restricts churches and other charitable organizations desiring tax-exempt status from endorsing candidates for public office. However, if the government can attach any string of restriction in order to obtain or maintain tax exemption, it can place others.

A church can honor the IRS restriction and still speak out boldly on issues facing our nation and even address the behavior of elected officials. The day may come when a church has to decide between being tax-exempt and obeying the Bible. If that day comes, may the Bible prevail. The church that depends on its tax-exempt status for survival is not much of a church.
Boggs is pastor of Valley Baptist Church, McMinnville, Ore.

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  • Kelly Boggs