Free speech v. Tax benefits

We’ve got a pretty simple principle in our tax code– if you want tax free, non-profit status, you cannot directly advocate for political candidates.   This applies whether you are a charitable organization of a church.  Apparently, some conservative churches don’t like this:

Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an initiative organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian nonprofit organization, which according to its website seeks to “defend the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and litigation.”

“We believe that a pastor has a right to speak whatever he believes without fearing the government will somehow censor what he says or threaten to take away his tax exemption,” ADF spokesman Erik Stanley said.

He said the group believes that the 1954 amendment, sponsored by then Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, is a violation of the Constitution. According to the ADF, the government’s monitoring of the content of pastors’ and churches’ speech is a violation of the Free Speech Clause.

This just really annoyed me.  The 1st amendment guarantees these churches/pastors the right to say whatever they want about politics– it does not guarantee their right to do so while maintaining tax exempt status.   Secondly, how nice it must be to simply go by your own “interpretation” of the Constitution.  We do have a Supreme Court and this part of tax law apparently works for them.  It’s not as if the 1st amendment gives you the right to say whatever you want and face no consequences whatsoever– simply that you can in no way be prosecuted or censored for the content of your speech.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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