The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the New Hampshire House of Representatives to end its tradition of starting sessions with a prayer.
An incident earlier this year highlights the complications that can result from this misbegotten practice. On Feb. 4, Peter Chamberland, pastor of Granite State Baptist Church in Concord, gave a controversial prayer. Chamberland prayed, "Lord, through every situation, that You would protect our children through the great drug crisis that goes across our state, both those that are born and the unborn, that You would watch over them." (Emphasis added). The divisive sermon received widespread news coverage.
However, when the prayer was published in the House Journal, the portion of the prayer dealing with abortion [italicized above] was redacted. House Clerk Paul Smith stated that prayers were not supposed to be political and that prayers printed in the House Journal were edited for such content. But New Hampshire law requires clerks of the House of Representatives to "keep a true and fair record of all proceedings."
More importantly, such redaction underlines the problems associated with legislative prayer. When the government inappropriately orchestrates prayer, it is no wonder that guests delivering these prayers use this unique platform to infuse it with indecorous political content.
The New Hampshire House of Representatives ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion, FFRF contends. Dropping official prayers is the only way to ensure that religious prejudices do not contaminate the legislative function of House sessions.
"Government prayer is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor writes to New Hampshire House Speaker Shawn Jasper. "Calling upon representatives, and citizens watching in the gallery or online, to rise and pray (even silently) is coercive, embarrassing, and beyond the scope of secular government."
Even nonsectarian prayer excludes the 23 percent of Americans who identify as nonreligious, FFRF emphasizes. The exclusion is compounded when a majority of prayers are sectarian (to Jesus) or a majority of the officiants are of one religion (Christianity). Such prayer creates acrimony, turns believers into political insiders and minorities into political outsiders in their own community, and confers unconstitutional governmental preference not just for Christianity over other faiths, but also for religion over nonreligion.
Christians who know their bible are familiar with the biblical injunction of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, condemning public prayer as hypocritical (Matthew 6:5-13). Observing a strict separation of church and state honors not only the First Amendment, but also the rights of conscience of all New Hampshire citizens.
On behalf of its New Hampshire membership and our secular Constitution, FFRF appeals to the House to concentrate on earthbound legislative matters. The tone that should be set is one that respects and reveres the secular and entirely godless U.S. Constitution, which state elected officials take an oath to uphold, and whose only references to religion are exclusionary.
FFRF asks that Chamberland's prayer be published in the House Journal in its entirety. Additionally, the organization urges the House leadership to take this opportunity to discontinue the practice of scheduling prayers to open sessions.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the separation of state and church that represents 24,000 nonreligious members across the country, including in New Hampshire.
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?"