Donald Trump wants to convert religious institutions into campaign halls.
In his nomination acceptance speech last night, the Republican presidential candidate repeated his pledge, now part of the GOP platform, to repeal the Johnson Amendment. Named after then-Sen. (later President) Lyndon B. Johnson, the amendment prohibits tax-exempt organizations from engaging in political campaigns. The law states that nonprofit 501(c)(3)s, which include churches, cannot "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." In short, the IRS prohibition against endorsing or opposing candidates for elected office applies equally to pastors and church officials.
Trump objects to this safeguard, stating in his speech: "[The evangelical community has] so much to contribute to our politics, yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits. An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson, many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views. I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans."
The amendment in fact does not silence the free speech rights of pastors in this country. Ministers and congregations are free to engage in church electioneering — if they forego their tax-exempt privilege. Religious leaders are free to endorse whomever they choose — so long as they do so on their own time and dime as citizens (a right that many Religious Right leaders take full advantage of). They simply cannot do so from the pulpit as church officials, or expend church resources to electioneer. The choice is theirs: either stay tax-exempt or endorse political candidates from the pulpit.
Tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofits are afforded a special privilege, which amounts to an indirect but major public subsidy. If an organization chooses to be tax-exempt under 501(c)(3), it forfeits the right to engage in political campaign intervention in exchange for this subsidy.
Significantly, churches and church-related charities are exempted from filing the onerous Form 990 annual tax return, which all other (c)(3)s must file to retain tax exemption. The Form 990 ensures accountability to donors, the IRS and the public at large. FFRF has sued the IRS over such discriminatory benefits, and is readying a new challenge imminently.
The pledge for both major political parties in this country ought to be enforcing the Johnson Amendment, not repealing it, as Trump promotes.
For decades, FFRF has been working to ensure enforcement. Since 2006, FFRF has asked the IRS for investigations into 70 situations in which we believe the tax code was violated. Our complaints to the IRS are filed without regard to political affiliation or allegiance. FFRF sent a letter to the IRS regarding a pastor at a church in North Carolina who urged his congregation during worship services to vote for President Obama. And just this year, FFRF sent the IRS letters about Hillary Clinton campaigning at churches that endorsed her during services.
In 2012, FFRF even sued the IRS to compel it to enforce its own regulations barring churches as well as other (c)(3)s from engaging in partisan political activity. We're proud our lawsuit nudged the IRS to agree to continue to investigate errant churches and ensure that the tax code is being enforced evenhandedly.
The Johnson Amendment isn't a threat to our democracy. But allowing tax-exempt churches to engage in political campaigning would be. It would open the door to further unregulated money in our politics with zero accountability. Because of their lack of accountability, were tax-exempt churches allowed to engage in electioneering, they could essentially turn into money-laundering operations for political candidates. The result would make the Citizens United fallout look like child's play. Our secular republic would be at stake.
For more problems with this proposal, see FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel's June 23 blog, "Church Politicking: Should churches be able to endorse political candidates?"
An illustrious Illinois freethinker is being restored to his pedestal.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce that, with the help of 238 generous donors from 43 states plus Puerto Rico, it has raised the money to refurbish a historic statue in Peoria to America's most famous "infidel," Robert Green Ingersoll. Private donations have paid all the costs to renovate the 1911 statue that is owned by the city of Peoria.
Thanks to the successful fundraiser that FFRF organized, the statue has been restored a year ahead of schedule. The project cost about $27,000. The Peoria Park District will hold the dedication in Glen Oak Park, Peoria, Ill., on Ingersoll's birthday, Aug. 11, at 10:30 a.m. The plaque on the new base will cite Ingersoll's famous lines:
"Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so."
FFRF is sponsoring its own dinner party for Ingersoll friends and aficionados in Peoria the night before. Speakers will include descendants Jeff Ingersoll, who directs the Robert Green Ingersoll Memorial Committee, and R.E. ("Elliott") Ingersoll, a professor of counseling psychology and faculty member at Cleveland State University who has been featured on TED Talks and is a musician. He'll provide the entertainment, along with FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, who has put to music several memorable Ingersoll poems and orations.
Also briefly speaking will be Center for Inquiry's Tom Flynn, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor and Margaret Downey, with the Memorial Committee. Attendees include Ingersoll enthusiasts as far away as Florida. Learn more or sign up here.
Ingersoll, a Civil War colonel and attorney who served as Illinois' attorney general, was thrust into national fame in the political field, then as an eloquent orator and fearless freethought advocate. In an era without sound amplification, Ingersoll could attract crowds as large as 10,000 and commanded major speaking fees. Friend to four presidents, he was a rising political star, until he began lecturing as a nonbeliever. Once asked how much his significant library cost, Ingersoll replied that it probably had cost him the presidency. He has been dubbed Peoria's "most famous citizen."
Ingersoll was born in Dresden, N.Y., in 1833, and launched his career in Peoria, where he met his wife, Eva, whom he praised as "a woman without superstition." A celebrated family man, he and Eva had two daughters. Eventually, Ingersoll moved to Washington, D.C., New York City and a mansion in upstate New York. Many biographies memorialize Ingersoll, including Professor Orvin Larson's work, "American Infidel," reprinted by FFRF.
The original dedication of the 1911 statue by Italian sculptor Fritz Triebel was attended by 6,000 individuals, including Ingersoll's widow, daughters and grandchildren, and was covered by The New York Times. Donors from all states had contributed.
"We do hope to 'seed' more statues to Ingersoll in the cities he lived in," says FFRF's Gaylor.
FFRF thanks all of the donors, including 16 who contributed $1,000 and whose names will appear on the new base of the statue. It is also grateful to Peoria Humanist Society's Ken Hofbauer, who brought the statue's condition to the city and FFRF's attention, Jeff Ingersoll of the Memorial Committee who helped fundraise and work with the Peoria Park District, and Zenos Frudakis, a sculptor who helped arrange the foundry work at Laran Bronze, Philadelphia.
Don't ignore the power of the secular voting bloc. That's the message the Freedom From Religion Foundation is taking to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
A striking 14-by-48-foot billboard bearing the images of four millennial voters that proclaims "I'm an atheist and I vote" is already up on I-95 north of I-676.
The "models" are actually FFRF employees or members: Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney; Sarah Lewis, a graduate student; Andrew Seidel, a staff attorney; and Callahan Miller, FFRF's legal assistant who is entering Harvard Law School this fall.
Thirty additional "I'm an atheist and I vote" ads will be displayed on MetroLight street-level kiosks in front of parking garages in downtown Philadelphia in tourist areas.
The secular quartet is representative of the rising power of the "Nones" — the one-third of young people today who identify as secular and religiously unaffiliated, says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Overall, a quarter of the population is nonreligious, Gaylor adds, "but we have to pinch ourselves to know we atheists and agnostics even exist in an election year."
Gaylor notes that both parties go to great strides to appease the Religious Right and to woo religious voters. Many seculars are unhappy over the inevitable religious invocations to open both conventions, and the ubiquitous "God Bless America" to end political speeches, not to mention political forums routinely conducted in churches.
FFRF earlier this year released a major survey of 8,000 registered voters who are nonreligious, revealing that the country's seculars want to see more support for civil rights, women's rights, LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, the separation of state and church, and action on global warming.
FFRF had a very different billboard up in Cleveland during the Republican National Convention, featuring a quote by GOP icon President Reagan: "Church and state are, and must remain, separate." The sign received a great deal of coverage by outraged representatives of the Religious Right, who were angered over an unrelated controversy involving rejection of an ad for "God's Not Dead 2" by a company in the Cleveland area. The corporation that hosted FFRF's billboard was not the same entity that rejected the ad for the movie, but that didn't stop the hysterical reaction.
FFRF is hoping for a positive response in Philadelphia to its election-year message by the city that birthed our nation's "godless and entirely secular Constitution," Gaylor says.