Free Speech for Churches, Too
We all believe in the First Amendment and its right to free speech.
Because of our devotion to liberty, we tolerate street-corner prophets who warn us of doom, protesters who “occupy” parks, and tea party members in front of our local post office with a bull horn on tax day.
The amendment, with its corollary of free expression, has even been used as an excuse for women to dance topless on bars and for Hugh Hefner to publish dirty pictures interspersed with political commentary that most only claim to read.
Yet there is one class of people who are denied free speech: our church clergy.
The Congress has decided that if a pulpit preacher advocates for a particular political candidate, his church can be taxed into oblivion. It is a policy that effectively muzzles the very persons to whom we look for moral guidance. As Chief Justice John Marshall ruled in 1819, “The power to tax involves the power to destroy.”
In 1954, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, while not yet even an afterthought to the Kennedy clan, got the idea for what we now call 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code. Johnson had become a leader during the Great Depression, a time of both financial desperation and technological innovation as radio became ubiquitous throughout America.
Not far from his mind was Father Charles Coughlin, the fiery Roman Catholic priest who used his radio program to oppose the policies of Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed Coughlin was radical and, at times, anti-Semitic. But to Roosevelt, and his young protégé, Lyndon Johnson, Coughlin and religious leaders in general represented a challenge to their hold on liberal public opinion.
Roosevelt took Coughlin off the air and forbade the post office to deliver Coughlin’s publications.
Johnson learned a lot from Roosevelt. He learned how to lie in order to encourage a war he wanted to create. For Roosevelt, the lie was the sinking of the Reuben James. For Johnson, it was the Gulf of Tonkin “incident.” Likewise, Johnson learned how to silence those who challenged the superiority of government. For Roosevelt, it was Coughlin. For Johnson, it was every religious leader in the nation.
Essentially, our income tax system exempts “good” religions that do not favor a particular political candidate.
For many, this poses a dilemma. Some religious leaders believe that abortion is the intentional killing of a human being. To them, its advocacy is the equivalent of condoning the commission of murder in violation of God’s holiest law. To others, abortion represents the right of a woman to choose her future.
Yet when one candidate favors the act and when another candidate opposes it, the messengers of God must remain silent. Nor may they use their resources to educate in such a way as to favor a political candidate. The story is the same for those religious leaders who believe that candidates who support gay marriage are doing Satan’s work and those who believe that supporters of gay rights are modern heroes standing in the way of stones being tossed at a harlot.
Today, we tax everything in life from income to cable bills. But even if the First Amendment means very little, its prohibition on Congress to make no law abridging freedom of speech should mean that speech ought not be taxed. Every preacher, rabbi and priest, liberal or conservative, is forced by the Internal Revenue Service to determine whether to obey Lyndon Johnson or God. And many churches have to pay a filing fee of about $850 for the privilege.
The truth is that the IRS uses its power sparingly, taking the exemption of only one church in recent years: the Church at Pierce Creek. It had the audacity to oppose Bill Clinton. But the “chilling effect” of this law permeates all religions. Every political season, liberals and conservatives try to silence the speech of their religious opponents by complaints to the IRS. The result is a more timid clergy in fear of the cost and consequence of an audit.
No, the Internal Revenue Service ought not be used as the censor for the ruling class. The answer to free speech is not censorship, but more free speech. The Congress should make no law “chilling” that speech, especially a law which taxes it.
Robert M. Levy is chairman of the Moore County Republican Party. Contact him at Law52@prodigy.net.
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