The Act removes a 60-year old Internal Revenue Code provision – the Johnson Amendment – which threatens churches with the loss of their tax-exempt status if they support or oppose legislation or candidates.
The letter, dated April 5, to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan reminds them of the vital role churches and pastors played in bringing a faith perspective to the pressing political issues of the day. Religious leaders played a critical role in the abolition and civil rights movements, among other important political causes.
“Since the Johnson Amendment, however, churches have been kept on the sidelines of political debate,” Paxton and Abbott wrote. “The Free Speech Fairness Act will ensure that churches may once again freely participate in government.”
In 1954, the Johnson Amendment was inserted into the U.S. tax code by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson without floor or committee debate. It prohibits a church from engaging in any activity that may directly or indirectly be interpreted as participating in a political campaign. The ban includes distributing literature about a candidate’s stance on issues.
The Free Speech Fairness Act removes the threat of an IRS investigation and potential penalties based on what a pastor says from the pulpit, and brings the law into conformity with the First Amendment.