Outreach & Events - Freedom From Religion Foundation
Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

%250 %America/Chicago, %2016

Presidential hopefuls pander to religion

Donald Trump photo by Michael Vadon under CC BY-SA 2.0. Hillary Clinton photo in the Public Domain.

The two presidential candidates from the major parties are doing little to court the growing secular vote.

Hillary Clinton took to religious pandering on the campaign trail. She asserted to the 136th annual National Baptist Convention on September 8 that:

We need a president who understands the powerful role that faith — and communities of faith — have always played in moving our country toward justice . . . A president who will pray with you, and for you . . .. Yes, we need a president who will do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

FFRF disagrees. We've long said that we don't need pious politicians who spend valuable time on their knees. We need politicians who will get off their knees and get to work. Prayer doesn't fix anything, but it does waste time and energy. And it also lets pandering public officials congratulate themselves on accomplishing something, when they are really just talking to themselves. Prayer doesn't heal the sick or rebuild cities after natural disasters. As Robert Ingersoll said, "The hands that help are better far than lips that pray."

Donald Trump, appearing at the Values Voters Summit on Sept. 9, promised that "our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended, like you've never seen before." He also reiterated his call to overturn the Johnson Amendment, part of the GOP platform:

The first thing we have to do is give our churches their voice back. It's been taken away. The Johnson Amendment has blocked our pastors and ministers and others from speaking their minds from their own pulpits. If they want to talk about Christianity, if they want to preach, if they want to talk about politics, they're unable to do so. If they want to do it, they take a tremendous risk that they lose their tax-exempt status.

All religious leaders should be able to freely express their thoughts and feelings on religious matters. And I will repeal the Johnson Amendment if I am elected your president, I promise. So important.

Named after then-Sen. (later President) Lyndon B. Johnson, the amendment prohibits tax-exempt organizations from engaging in political campaigns. The law is a safeguard that prevents any 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which include churches, from participating in or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office if they wish to retain tax-exempt status. In short, the IRS prohibition against endorsing or opposing candidates for elected office applies equally to pastors and church officials.

The amendment absolutely does not silence the free speech rights of pastors. 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.

Tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofits are afforded a special privilege, which amounts to an indirect but "huge" public subsidy. If an organization profits from tax-exemption, it forfeits the right to engage in political campaign intervention in exchange for this subsidy. Were unaccountable, tax-exempt churches allowed to politick, watch out! Churches and their congregations would turn into political money-laundering operations. And our secular republic, not just our elections, would be imperiled.

The Johnson Amendment provides an important safeguard. It must be preserved and enforced, something FFRF helped maintain by in our lawsuit against the IRS

To pandering candidates everywhere, may we quote some sage advice from Ben Franklin:

When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig'd to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

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?"


1praytoplayvirginiatechWith the college football season in full swing, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is renewing its objection to Virginia Tech's football chaplaincy.

FFRF initially contacted the university in August of last year to complain about its chaplaincy program, enclosing a broader national report. Virginia Tech's Director of Athletics Whit Babcock's response to our letter, dated Oct. 15, 2015, indicated that Virginia Tech has taken positive steps regarding its chaplain, but that the program remains intact.

On the plus side, money was repaid to the university after team chaplain Dave Gittings and his family traveled with the team and stayed in team hotels, received per diem payments for bowl games, and received complimentary season tickets.

However, Virginia Tech appears to have retained its chaplaincy program as a whole. Gittings continues to serve as the team chaplain, and he apparently provides "weekly large group meetings open to the student athletes, small group team Bible studies, one on one discipleship, coaches bible studies and a ministry to the ladies who love and support the coach called Behind The Bench."

The university's chaplaincy program remains unconstitutional. Backbock's response indicated "that any religious services are optional and not university sponsored." The idea that such religious services are truly optional is questionable at best. FFRF's report considered the voluntariness of team religious activities, which are often encouraged by the head coach, and concluded that "athletes do not view coaches' suggestions as optional."

Additionally, the Virginia Tech has only a Christian chaplain, showing an unconstitutional preference for Christianity. This is in spite of the fact that 44 percent of college-aged Americans are non-Christian and fully a third of millennials identify as nonreligious, according to the Pew Research Center. According to Virginia Tech's Gobbler Connect Organizations Directory, there are more than 60 religious organizations for students to choose from. There is no need for the Virginia Tech football program to provide Christian chaplains in order for the student-athletes to freely exercise their religions.

In order to aid the university in protecting its students from religious discrimination, FFRF is also recommending the adoption of a model policy, which includes the maintenance of complete official neutrality in matters of religion. If adopted, this model policy would not only bring the university into compliance with the law but it would send the message that the Virginia Tech values the rights of every student athlete to hold his or her own religious or nonreligious views, free from direct or indirect coercion or contrary endorsement.

"In this day and age, the university should be welcoming to everyone, not making players feel they must 'pray to play,'" adds Gaylor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with almost 24,000 nonreligious members across the country, including more than 500 in Virginia.


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