Move for freer political speech divides Georgia’s religious community

It’s a regular ritual on Sundays before big votes: Candidates fan out to churches across the state, take prominent perches near the pulpit and receive warm applause from parishioners. And preachers inevitably shower them with kind words, though they stop short of much more lest they cross an invisible line.

That’s exactly what happened a recent Sunday when Atlanta mayoral candidates made a flurry of last-minute stops before the vote. There was Peter Aman in the front row of Elizabeth Baptist Church in south Atlanta — one of the only white faces in a historically black church.

He didn’t get much more from Pastor Craig Oliver than a warm introduction — but clergy could soon be dramatically freer to speak up under a hotly debated change tucked into the House GOP’s broad rewrite of the tax code.

And that has deeply divided Georgia’s religious community.

The mingling of politics and faith has long been a hallmark of life in the South. Candidates make pilgrimages to congregations on the Sundays ahead of elections. Pastors distribute voter guides, and many proselytize on the most pressing political issues of the day.

Yet for 63 years, churches and other charitable organizations have been barred from taking one of the most concrete actions in the political playbook: endorsing candidates. Organizations that violate the so-called Johnson Amendment risk losing their tax-exempt status.

Frustration with that rule has bubbled almost since it was adopted, particularly among some conservative Christian organizations. House Republicans, in a nod to their base, are making their most serious push in years to overturn it, tucking repeal language into the tax bill they passed last week.

“This is a simply free speech issue, one in which we can protect churches, temples and other places of worship from IRS intrusion as they exercise their right of religious freedom,” said U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell.

Fans of the Johnson Amendment say their opponents’ argument is overblown: The Internal Revenue Service rarely enforces it, they say, and the majority of the public is behind the concept of keeping churches out of the business of endorsing candidates. They also warn that overturning the law could have unintended consequences, such as turning religious institutions into de-facto political action committees or more broadly threatening the sanctity of the Sabbath.

“No political party has it all right when it comes to the teachings of Jesus — all of us see through a glass darkly,” said Matt DuVall, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Rome.

“And so to elevate one political party over another as a minister or church is, in essence, to create an idol to be worshipped or to form God into our preferred image rather than to be shaped into the image of God and that is sacrilegious,” DuVall said.

‘Chilling effect’

For Athens-based Congressman Jody Hice, the fight over the Johnson Amendment is personal.

The second-term Republican dove into politics for one of the first times in 2008, when as the head minister at Barrow County’s Bethlehem First Baptist Church he joined three-dozen other religious leaders to endorse John McCain’s presidential bid from the pulpit. The move was designed to trigger a legal fight with the IRS.

“Every election cycle I would receive threatening letters that I could be sued, that my church could be sued, that we could lose tax-exempt status if I addressed certain issues,” Hice said. The letters from secular groups were “very official, very intimidating, very frightful.”

So Hice joined a campaign organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian legal aid group. He sent a copy of his political sermon to the IRS. Nothing happened. So he and hundreds of others did it again the next year. And the next.

“At the center of the First Amendment is religious liberties. And the core of civil liberties is in the church, in the pulpit,” Hice said on Capitol Hill earlier this month. “For the government to be policing what is said from the pulpit is unconstitutional.”

Named after its author, Lyndon Johnson, the Johnson Amendment is aimed at keeping nonprofits out of partisan politics.

As a Texas U.S. senator, Johnson introduced the provision in order to stop an outside group that was advocating for the election of one of his opponents. The language he amended the tax code with, though, was written more broadly and included religious and charity institutions.

Decades later, some religious organizations say the language hangs over them like a dark cloud. They say pastors are muzzled from speaking freely to their congregations because they are frightened the IRS will take away their organizations’ tax-exempt status.

“It has a chilling effect on their freedom of speech,” said Ralph Reed, the founder of the Georgia-based Christian nonprofit the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

The push has been embraced by prominent conservative clergy, including the Rev. Frank Pavone, whose book “Abolishing Abortion” addresses what he calls the unintended consequences of the rule. Although rarely enforced, he said it’s left a legacy of fear from the “vagueness inherent in the amendment” reinforced by church leaders.

Pavone cited a memo sent during election season by one diocese that made a “chilled situation chillier” by restricting employees from promoting or discrediting any political party or candidate and cautioning them to ensure that their websites do the same. That advice, he said, is “impossible to follow.”

“How, for instance, is the church to preach her own doctrine that abortion, and support for abortion, is morally unacceptable, and at the same time not discredit the Democratic Party and its unwavering support for unrestricted abortion?” asked Pavone, the national director of the anti-abortion Priests for Life group.

Partisan churches?

Debate over the language was kicked into high gear after President Donald Trump’s election. In May, Trump signed an executive order directing the IRS to be more lenient in its enforcement of the law as it relates to religious groups and political activity.

“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore,” Trump said during the signing ceremony.

It will take an act of Congress to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which House Republicans are now aiming to do in their overhaul of the tax code. A Democratic attempt to negate the action, led by U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, was thwarted by GOP congressmen on the House Ways and Means Committee. The Senate tax bill does not include similar language, but it’s expected to be debated in any House-Senate tax negotiations.

Supporters of the Johnson Amendment say the concerns raised by the likes of Hice, Reed and Pavone are overblown — there are no pastors being carried off to jail and few churches are losing their tax-exempt status, they say. The provision, proponents say, is one of the last things keeping the scorched-earth style of partisan politics that’s come to define American life out of church.

“If the Johnson Amendment is repealed, then we will have Republican churches and Democrat churches,” said Charles Smith, the pastor at Madison Baptist Church in Madison. “I don’t think that is healthy for our country.”

The amendment’s supporters often say they understand that all churches are engaged in politics at a certain level, but they worry where the line would be drawn if the restriction was nixed. Some raised particular questions about televangelists, whose services can reach thousands or millions.

“Would that mean that lobbyists could come and purchase airtime in your sermons? Would they sit with you in your study and offer their critique and edits to your sermons? Would campaign donors write your prayers?” said DuVall, the Rome pastor.

“Eventually,” he said, “the minister and the church would be beholden to the money that is dragging our politics around instead of following faithfully to the call of the Gospel of Christ.”

Nicholas Little, the legal director and vice president at the Center for Inquiry, a secular society group, said it is “incredibly difficult” for the IRS to enforce the Johnson Amendment. Not only is it hard to catch churches breaking the rule, he said, but there is “a taboo element in going after churches.”

Little points to public polls from groups such as the Pew Research Center that show roughly two-thirds of Americans don't want houses of worship to endorse political candidates.

The IRS used to publish statistics about how many churches it investigated for Johnson Amendment violations in each election cycle. But the agency stopped in 2009, according to Reuters.

The IRS did not respond to requests for comment about its approach to enforcement.

One of Little’s primary concerns has to do with the flow of untraceable dark money into politics if the Johnson Amendment is repealed. Why would political actors donate to political groups if the money would be taxed, he said, when they could give tax-free to churches that could endorse?

Budget scorekeepers say removing the Johnson Amendment would cost the government some $2 billion in tax revenue over 10 years.

‘Maintain integrity’

In Georgia, where a rising crop of politicians got their start as preachers, the debate holds a particularly resonant role.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins made his name as a preacher before launching into Republican politics. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s preacher blessed the crowd at his campaign kickoff over the summer.

And Democrats organize “souls to the polls” efforts to mobilize voters directly from church pews to voting sites. In October 2016, a bus caravan unloaded dozens of parishioners at a south Fulton County voting site on a chilly Sunday as preachers urged them to keep issues such as voting rights and health care top of mind.

That movement was led by the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who has leveraged his platform as the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the legendary Atlanta congregation where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, to become one of the state’s leading Democrats.

Warnock struggled with that question in 2015 when he was pondering a U.S. Senate run, mindful that staying on as Ebenezer’s senior pastor while running a campaign would put him and his congregation under increased scrutiny.

At the time, Warnock cited examples of pastors who have preached on Sundays and campaigned on Mondays, including former New York U.S. Reps. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Floyd Flake; and ex-Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Bill Gray, all black preachers who maintained a presence on the pulpit after they were elected.

He is considered a potential contender in 2020 for the U.S. Senate, and he said he would use a candidacy to engage people of faith through a range of platforms. But he said he appreciates that the rule has kept preachers in the pulpit out of partisan politics.

“It helps us maintain the integrity of our witness as a spiritual voice amidst the messiness of the public square,” Warnock said. “I shudder to think about a day when the dark money that we see in politics can show up in the coffers of churches.”

Pressed on that possibility, Faith and Freedom’s Reed said repealing the Johnson language is a defensive maneuver that won’t transform houses of worship into political conduits.

“We’re not asking or advising that churches become political organizations,” said Reed, a former Christian Coalition leader who ran unsuccessfully for Georgia lieutenant governor in 2006.

“We just don’t want them to be threatened with the loss of their tax-exempt status if they utter a single word that is political in nature,” he said.