By Jonathan Lange, guest columnist
The hate-fueled riots of the past four months have left scores of churches vandalized, torched and desecrated. When war is waging in the streets, it is an especially dark kind of evil that targets people and institutions dedicated to the Prince of Peace.
Last summer’s rash of attacks on church property thankfully spared Wyoming churches. However, the same destructive hate visited our state in a different form. An anonymous attacker has published threats against Open Door Church in Gillette, Wyoming.
In letters addressed to the secretary of state, the governor, the attorney general, and to numerous media outlets in Gillette—along with the unsubstantiated threat of a filing a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)—the author is urging multiple government agencies and media outlets to harass the church with investigations. Threatening the tax-exempt status of a church, the letter writer’s obvious intent is to close the doors of Open Door Church. He or she even goes so far as to address members of the church directly, insinuating that they should withhold offerings.
All of this is an over-the-top bid to intimidate the church into silence. Why? What has it done to deserve this financial terrorism? When COVID closed the public library to an event featuring local churchgoers running for public office, Open Door Church opened its doors to them to use its facility. Even though it was not an official church event, the anonymous letter writer would like to burn it down.
The spurious basis for this attack is that the appearance of four candidates for public office, “was conducted in a religious institution subject to non-profit status.” Note the word, “subject.” In this twisted view of the world, non-profit status subjugates churches to the government. It gets worse. The letter goes on to claim: “They acquire this [non-profit] status by promising not to engage in certain political lobbying or campaigning.”
In these two sentences, the anonymous letter writer expresses an astounding ignorance of federal laws governing the relationship of churches to the state. First, non-profit status is not “acquired” by churches. It is—and always has been—a pre-political reality—just as human beings have “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” because they are human beings, and not because the government grants it to them. So also, churches are exempt from taxes by virtue of their being churches and not from the conditional largess of the government. Churches in communist regimes are required to make promises as a condition of recognition. Churches in America are not.
The anonymous author can, perhaps, be excused for his ignorance because of the confusion introduced by the so-called “Johnson Amendment.” In 1954, future president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, introduced retaliatory legislation into the United States Senate.
Johnson was upset that some churches in Texas openly opposed his re-election bid. So, he persuaded his colleagues to insert a condition into IRS code for 501(c)3 corporations that stipulated they, “not 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.”
This language, limiting the speech of any church that incorporates under paragraph 501(c)3, is obviously unconstitutional. For this reason, in 66 years, it has never been enforced. Not only has no court of law ever stripped a church of 501(c)3 status for violating this amendment, the IRS itself has never once taken a church to court.
Despite its obvious unconstitutionality, legislators have not repealed the amendment. Therefore, in a bid to challenge it in court, Pulpit Freedom Sunday was organized in the summer of 2008. Numerous ministers preached sermons that endorsed specific candidates. These sermons were recorded and sent to the IRS inviting a legal challenge. The IRS—even under the infamous directorship of Lois Lerner—refused to enforce the amendment.
The Johnson Amendment is not lawful, but it is a useful cudgel against religious voices. As long as it remains on the books, the mere threat of litigation can be used to intimidate churches into silence on the issues and candidates of the day. This is exactly how it is being used in Gillette. The anonymous letter writer is figuratively pointing a gun at Open Door Church in order to silence it. Whether he knows that it is an empty gun, or is misinformed enough to think it is loaded, it is still an assault on the church.
To be clear, even if a church officially hosts candidates for public office, it is not in violation of the law. Lest there be any doubt about this, Federal Election Commission (FEC) chair, Trey Trainor, took to the airwaves on September 15.
He noted that, “One of the first things he [President Trump] did when he came into office in 2017 was issue an executive order to the Department of the Treasury, telling them that they could no longer enforce that provision of the law and that religious organizations needed to be treated the same as every other organization. The Johnson Amendment is still on the books but, with lack of enforcement authority by the executive agency, it’s a law that’s not going to be enforced.”
Key to understanding why the Johnson Amendment is unenforceable is the phrase, “treated the same as every other organization.” According to Trainor, “the test that the Department of the Treasury uses now is: ‘If that same speech would come from a non-religious organization, could it be prosecuted?’” He goes on to answer his own question. “Clearly it would be First-Amendment activity for any other organization to engage in. And, therefore, the church should be able to engage in it.”
The entire interview is well worth listening to. Trainor explains that modern notions of the “separation of church and state” are clearly contrary to the First Amendment. Neither the text nor the intent of the U.S. Constitution can be construed as a prohibition of the church speaking to the state. The entire thrust of the Constitution is to prevent the state from interfering in the speech or activity of the church.
Of course, wise and faithful churches will limit their own speech to matters clearly delineated by the Holy Scriptures. They know that politicizing the Gospel is an affront to God and an abuse of His word. But they also know that it is an affront to God to avoid plain biblical teaching that confronts the rulers of this age. This is not only true of topics like abortion and sexuality. It is also true of specific rulers like Nebuchadnezzar and Herod Antipas.
The U.S. Constitution protects the freedom of churches to perform these duties and to decide these matters of doctrine. The government has no competence or authority to instruct churches about where they should draw these lines.
Not only is the government forbidden to criminalize the church’s speech, it is also forbidden to dampen it through financial pressure. That’s why the executive order specifically forbids “the imposition of any tax or tax penalty,” as well as “the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions made to entities exempted from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit or benefit.”
In this political season, especially, churches should be assured that they are free to be faithful to God’s word without the threat of financial penalties. Attempts to intimidate churches into silence are despicable and shameful. No wonder the attacker is ashamed to sign his name.