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Partisan pulpit: Pastor's defiance spurs debate on election law

Pastor Greg Locke, of the Global Vision Bible Church in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., is accused of violating the law by telling his congregants in a sermon from the pulpit that they could not vote for Democrats. Photo courtesy of Pastor Greg Locke/Facebook
Pastor Greg Locke, of the Global Vision Bible Church in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., is accused of violating the law by telling his congregants in a sermon from the pulpit that they could not vote for Democrats. Photo courtesy of Pastor Greg Locke/Facebook

Sept. 21 (UPI) -- As the 2022 midterm election approaches, a controversial Tennessee pastor is defying a federal law that prohibits nonprofits -- including houses of worship -- from supporting candidates.

The Johnson Amendment has wide support from the public and religious leaders, who want to keep partisan politics separate from their faith.

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Violations can lead to the Internal Revenue Service revoking an organization's tax-exempt status.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State say Pastor Greg Locke, of the Global Vision Bible Church in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., violated the law by telling his congregants in a sermon from the pulpit that they could not vote for Democrats. The Washington-based advocacy organization has asked the IRS to investigate.

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Locke calls the law unconstitutional and a bullying tactic by the government to silence pastors.

"We do not bow our knee to the IRS," Locke said in a Aug. 26 statement to UPI. "We bow only to Jesus Christ. I will continue to boldly expose the corruption of politics in our day and we are not afraid of the consequences. We have a constitutional right and a Biblical command to voice our faith and our opinion just as much as anyone else and we refuse to be silenced."

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Global Vision Bible Church gave up its tax-exempt status after Americans United made its complaint, communications director Wayne Caparas said. The decision was supported by congregants, who don't care about getting a tax deduction for their donations, he said.

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The Johnson Amendment bars contributions to political campaign funds and verbal or written public statements made on behalf of organizations that have Section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. The amendment was enacted in 1954 and named for then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who championed the law.

Churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship that meet the 501(c)(3) criteria are exempted from taxation and donations to them are tax-deductible for the donors.

Religious organizations and other nonprofits can engage in a limited amount of lobbying on legislation and ballot measures and advocate for or against issues that are in the political arena, according to IRS guidelines. In addition, nonprofit and religious leaders are allowed to endorse candidates in their personal capacity and express those opinions as private citizens.

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'Fiery, foul-mouthed' sermon

Americans United says in a letter to the IRS requesting a review that a "fiery, foul-mouthed" tent revival sermon Locke delivered on May 15 included partisan political remarks.

The letter quotes Locke as saying in his sermon, which was live-streamed, "'If you vote Democrat, I don't even want you around this church. You can get out. You can get out, you demon.'"

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(Locke is also known for book burning, defying mask mandates during COVID-19 and was outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021 riots.)

Andrew Seidel, Americans United's vice president of strategic communications, said the Johnson Amendment does not prevent religious leaders from endorsing candidates outside their position as clergy, such as talking to family and friends about them or supporting their candidacy on a personal Facebook page.

"What they can't do is use the tax exemption of their house of worship to wade into partisan politics," Seidel said. "It's not about free speech. It's about tax exemption. There's no First Amendment right to be tax-exempt."

Without the Johnson Amendment, a small minority of churches would endorse candidates while also receiving donations of any amount from any number of people, Seidel said. Unlike other nonprofits, churches are not required to submit a Form 990, an annual report on a nonprofit organization's activities and finances, meaning the source of its funds would be unknown to the public and they would become powerful political action committees, he said.

"It would completely change the landscape of American politics forever," Seidel said.

Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said her organization views the Johnson Amendment as an uncontroversial protection for all nonprofits from encroachment by political candidates and parties.

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"Partisan politics can be so divisive for congregations," Tyler said. "Houses of worship are not organized by how people vote. But if we saw changes to the Johnson Amendment that would permit partisan politicking in houses of worship, we could end up with something like a First Democratic Baptist Church and a First Republican Baptist Church."

Repealing the law would distract churches from their religious mission and harm their ability to speak truth to power, she said. There are ways other than endorsements that houses of worship can be involved in civic activity, such as nonpartisan voter education or nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts, Tyler said.

Challenging endorsement ban

Branch Ministries Inc., doing business as the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., unsuccessfully challenged the revocation of its tax-exempt status in the 1990s after it ran a full-page advertisement in the Washington Times and USA Today expressing concern about the moral character of presidential candidate Bill Clinton.

The ad -- published Oct. 30, 1992, four days before the general election -- claimed Clinton supported abortion on demand, homosexuality and the distribution of condoms to teenagers in public schools. It cited various Biblical passages and said, "Bill Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God's laws."

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A notice at the bottom, in fine print, said, "This advertisement was co-sponsored by The Church at Pierce Creek, Daniel J. Little, Senior Pastor, and by churches and concerned Christians nationwide. Tax-deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted."

The church, which said it had not engaged in any political activity and that the ad constituted a "warning to members of the Body of Christ," filed suit a few months after its tax-exempt status was revoked in 1995, alleging it was being selectively prosecuted because of its conservative views and that its First Amendment right to free speech was being infringed.

U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman in Washington rejected those arguments and upheld the constitutionality of the ban on political activity. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld his decision.

"The government has a compelling interest in maintaining the integrity of the tax system and in not subsidizing partisan political activity, and Section 501(c)(3) is the least restrictive means of accomplishing that purpose," Friedman wrote.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump promised to "totally destroy" the Johnson Amendment. On May 4, 2017, he signed an executive order directing the executive branch to limit its enforcement of that law.

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Locke claims Trump repealed the ban on political activity through the order, which allows him to speak out.

"We do not adhere to such a mandate and that places us in no legal defiance to any law whatsoever," he said in his statement.

Respite from partisan politics

But Rick Cohen, chief communications officer/chief operating officer of the National Council of Nonprofits, said the law is still on the books and has wide support.

When the U.S. House included language in a 2017 bill that would have repealed the Johnson Amendment, a letter urging members of Congress to keep the law was signed by more than 4,300 faith leaders, Cohen said. He said separate letters were signed by more than 100 denominations and major religious organizations and by more than 5,800 community organizations.

Separate polls conducted in 2017 show 72% of the public support keeping the Johnson Amendment in place and nearly 90% of evangelical leaders say it is wrong for preachers to endorse candidates from the pulpit, according to the council.

The first survey, done by TargetPoint, a public opinion market research firm based in Arlington, Va., polled 800 registered voters. The other one, by the National Association of Evangelicals, was a poll of 112 religious leaders.

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"Houses of worship and nonprofits overall are proud to be a respite from the toxic divisiveness of partisan politics," Cohen said. "We don't need boardrooms divided over 'Do we endorse Candidate A or Candidate B for the local city council?' We've got enough things to worry about. We don't need one more thing potentially dividing the people who lead the organization."

Cohen added compliance is easy.

"It doesn't prevent nonprofits from speaking up on the issues of the day," he said of the Johnson Amendment. "It doesn't prevent organizations from speaking up on issues of abortion or gun legislation or anything else. There's one simple, very bright line drawn in the sand that you can't support or oppose candidates for office."

Split among clergy

Rabbi Arthur Rutberg, of Temple Bat Yam in Berlin, Md., said it's imperative to maintain a wall of separation between church and state. A pastor, minister, imam, rabbi, priest or other religious leader advocating for a candidate can create trouble, he said.

"We already had a very tenuous situation in this country where so much of a particular faith group and a particular brand of a faith group seems to try to dominate the political landscape," Rutberg said.

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He also said his congregants are very supportive of the Johnson Amendment and don't want politics interfering with religion.

Other clergy members want the amendment overturned.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based legal organization, says a 2017 survey showed strong opposition to the restriction. Of the 1,000 Protestant pastors questioned, 91% agreed clergy members should have the right to speak freely from the pulpit without fear of being penalized by the government and 73% said Congress should remove the IRS's power to penalize a church because of the content of its pastor's sermons.

The survey was sponsored by ADF and conducted by Lifeway Research, an evangelical research firm that studies faith in culture and matters that affect churches.

In 2008, ADF began conducting Pulpit Freedom Sunday as a way to challenge the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment. Thirty-three pastors that year gave sermons evaluating candidates in light of Scripture, made recommendations about the office seekers and sent the sermons to the IRS, the organization says in a posting on its website.

"We believe that it is unconstitutional for the government to attempt in any way to censor a pastor's sermon," the posting says.

The number of pastors participating increased over the years but the agency remained silent, according to a 2017 article on the ADF website.

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Cohen said the IRS is severely under-resourced, particularly in its division that works with tax-exempt organizations and the Johnson Amendment is not enforced a lot.

ADF no longer does Pulpit Freedom Sundays, media relations specialist Jacqueline Ribeiro said.

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