"Pulpit Freedom Sunday," an annual event that deliberately seeks to incite church pastors into flouting the law, is assuming an even more ominous tone this year.
Christian groups observe "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" to protest what they perceive as undue restrictions that prohibit tax-exempt entities, including churches, from engaging in political endorsements and electioneering. But the observance, which falls on Oct. 2, now has legislative heft behind it.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise is introducing a bill in Congress misnamed the "Free Speech Fairness Act" that would lift many of the protective restrictions the 1954 Johnson Amendment (introduced by Sen. and later President Lyndon B. Johnson) has placed on 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including churches.
"The bill restores free speech and religious liberty to churches and other nonprofits by allowing them to make political statements, so long as they are (1) made in the ordinary course of the organization's regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose, and (2) any expenditure related to this are de minimis," Scalise's press release says.
Scalise held a press conference on Wednesday, Sept. 28, to announce the dangerous bill, along with Rep, Jody Hice, R-Ga., and a cluster of evangelicals, including Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and Christiana Holcomb, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom.
Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom are among the main well-heeled Christian right groups behind Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Family Research Council has a project called "Watchmen on the Wall," and encourages pastors this Sunday, Oct. 2, to "1) Preach an Election Sermon" and "2) Prompt your Church Members to Call Congress to repeal the Johnson Amendment."
Now, Scalise and fellow ultraconservatives in Congress have taken their cue from these evangelical groups.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is prominently named and condemned in Scalise's press release. FFRF was at the center of a high-profile lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service over illegal church electioneering. FFRF's federal lawsuit charged that political violations by churches were being selectively ignored and it took the IRS to court in November 2012. After being given assurances, that the IRS had authorized procedures and "signature authority" to resume initiating church tax investigations and examinations, FFRF agreed to drop its suit. The challenge can be resumed if evidence comes forward that the IRS has discontinued its investigations.
Scalise's press release has spun this into something nefarious.
"In 2012, the IRS settled a suit with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which was complaining that the IRS did not enforce the prohibition on political activity," the statement says. "The IRS created a unit which investigates church violations—the 'Political Activity Referral Committee' (PARC). It has identified 99 churches as having 'potential impermissible political campaign intervention activities.'"
FFRF notes that it is the role and obligation of the IRS to police improper activity by 501(c)(3)s and that churches may not break the law.
"Allowing churches to engage in open politicking and endorsement would undermine the very foundations of our secular republic," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Any attempts to do this—legislative or otherwise—must be thwarted."
She adds that permitting churches to funnel tax-exempt donations for political purposes would make the dark money created by Citizens United look like loose change. Gaylor explains that the problem is compounded by the IRS code that exempts churches from filing annual tax returns accounting for their tax-exempt money, unlike all other 501(c)(3)s.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nontheistic organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 members all over the country.
Statement by Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Half a century after Alabama Gov. George Wallace earned the wrath of the Kennedy administration for his stance against desegregation, Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore is in hot water for his opposition to same-sex marriage.
Moore is in trouble for a four-page administrative order he sent out in January to Alabama's probate judges telling them it was their "ministerial duty" not to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
Moore, an evangelical Christian fanatic, is incorrigible. He previously defied a federal court order to remove a 5,000-pound, washing-machine-sized Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court, which he plopped there in the dead of night. For defying the order of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Moore was removed as chief justice by a state ethics panel in 2003. Nevertheless, Moore was voted back as chief justice in 2012 — as good an argument as one can find for why state supreme court justices should not be elected.
Moore is pretending that he's striking a blow for liberty, calling the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage "immoral, unconstitutional and tyrannical." But the law of the land — as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court — is the law of the land.
His defiance once again is motivated by his faith — and his blinkered belief that he has the right to inflict his religion on everyone else. Just like segregationists, Moore makes a "states' rights" argument. But civil rights do not — and must not — depend on the state you happen to live in.
Moore is an old nemesis of FFRF. FFRF's Alabama chapter, the Alabama Freethought Society, and several of its members, first blew the whistle on Moore when he was a county judge in Gadsden, forcing jurors to pray and subjecting them to view his handcrafted wooden Ten Commandments plaque. Chapter members were the plaintiffs in the initial suit against Moore. Like a bad penny, he resurfaces, and regularly files briefs on behalf of his Foundation for Moral Law against FFRF and other separationist groups.
Moore has included nonbelievers among those he blames for his present travails. "Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore on Wednesday accused several groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and 'atheists, homosexuals and transgender individuals' of bringing a politically motivated complaint about his administrative order to probate judges not to issue same-sex marriage licenses gay marriage to the Judicial Inquiry Commission of Alabama," reports AlabamaMediaGroup.com. We're glad to be honored.
Chief Justice Roy Moore may be finally reaching the end of his ignominious career with the ongoing ethics trial. You can only travel so far on bigotry and illogic.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is objecting to events suffused with religion that are due to be held at several Indiana public schools.
Two groups are organizing these events.
Several Indiana public schools are hosting assemblies for "Break the Grey," a group that addresses troubled-youth topics. The speaker at these events, Bill Ballenger, promotes Christian rock concerts organized by him, often on the same evening as the assemblies. Ballenger has stated that the assemblies are designed to get people to the rock performances, and has referred to the evening event in his web biography (since altered) as the "culminat[ion]" of the assembly.
The other organization that is putting together events at many Indiana public schools is called RemedyLIVE, a Christian ministry that encourages students to "share their secret struggles with caring adults." Its website informs schools that students will be "given cards that invite them to chat with RemedyLIVE's 24/7 crisis chat center," but notably omits the fact that the ministry refers to its online staff as "soul medics" who have to be "committed believers to the teachings of Jesus Christ." They discuss religion with students during online sessions. RemedyLIVE's own website says that they "want to help young adults who struggle with ... disbelief in God." The website lists "faith" as one of nine issues for discussion. Even secular topics such as bullying are presented in religious terms.
It is unconstitutional for a public school district to allow outside adults to promote a religious event to a captive audience of students during a school-sponsored assembly.
"It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne has written to several Indiana schools, citing a number of cases. "In Lee v. Weisman, the U.S. Supreme Court extended the prohibition of school-sponsored religious activities beyond classrooms to all school functions."
While public schools may host speakers to address bullying and other subjects, those events cannot be tied to Christian messages or after-school religious revivals.
Legal issues aside, school districts should not provide discriminatory groups with access to schools. Nearly half of millennials in this country are non-Christian, and it is outrageous to suggest, as RemedyLIVE does, that failing to be Christian is an "issue" on par with other serious problems afflicting teenagers.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has made certain that "Break the Grey" events hosted by two Wisconsin school districts will not engage in religious promotion. Break the Grey is scheduled to hold assemblies at Hayward High School and Hayward Middle School in Hayward, Wis., on October 25 and at South Shore Junior/Senior High School in Port Wing, Wis., on Oct. 26. After FFRF alerted the two school districts, it received assurances that the group would not be permitted to promote their evening religious event or otherwise evangelize students.
FFRF is asking for similar assurances from the Indiana school districts or for the events to be cancelled.
"A captive student audience cannot be compelled to listen to Christian-themed counseling," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Indiana public schools should realize that this is unconstitutional."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 members, including almost 400 in Indiana.