Any pastor will tell you that unless you put the scriptures into practice, they will not change your life. As a result, pastors are responsible not only for teaching the text and meaning of scripture, but also for teaching their congregations how to apply those scriptures to life.
However, when scripture applies to the legislative process, or a political election, the pastor must step out of the pulpit before applying scripture to the situation. Otherwise, the church can lose its tax-exempt status under the Johnson Amendment.
To be clear, pastors can discuss abortion, homosexuality, benevolence and relief for the poor, drug abuse, sexual immorality and the definition of marriage from the pulpit. It’s when those issues become tied to legislation, or a political campaign that the Johnson Amendment comes into play.
Such was the case in Houston during the fall of 2014. Mayor Annise Parker and the Houston City Council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, adding sexual orientation to the list of things for which one could not be discriminated against. While this sounds like common decency on the surface, many felt that the ordinance infringed on the religious freedoms of Christian business owners, contractors, and political hopefuls. Then, there was the bathroom issue.
Pastors who preached against homosexuality could not reference the proposed ordinance, or discuss petitions to call for a public referendum on the ordinance, from the pulpit. To engage the ordinance, those pastors would have to work on their own time, apart from the churches. Such is common, and such took place in the aftermath of the passage of HERO.
The petition to call for a referendum failed, and Houston area pastors filed a lawsuit claiming that many signatures on the petition were unlawfully disqualified. During the discovery phase of that suit, attorneys for the city subpoena’ed the sermons of some of the pastors who helped promote the petition.
Time magazine reported that lawyers for the city wanted to search the sermon notes to see if any of the pastors had discussed the petition, or instructed their parishioners on how to participate in the petition during church services.
Immediately, there was an outcry from the Christian community in Houston, and Mayor Parker ordered the lawyers to drop the subpoenas for the sermon notes, telling the Texas Tribune that she had not approved those subpoenas prior to them being sent out.
The legal and political process played out, resulting in the referendum on HERO being put to the voters. It ultimately failed.
This post is not to reopen the debate on HERO, bathrooms or same-sex marriage. This post is to examine how the Johnson Amendment was used, though not cited, as a legal tool to overcome the political activities of Christian pastors.
Under the Johnson Amendment, churches are not allowed to engage in activity that would influence an election, or legislation. Churches cannot lobby the legislature, their local councils, and cannot endorse candidates. Churches cannot contribute to political candidates or political action committees. Doing so would cost them their tax-exempt status, and subject them to federal regulation.
There are good reasons for the Johnson Amendment, as no one wants to see churches become stealth super-PACs, as Roll Call fears. On the other hand, the premise of the Johnson Amendment was the basis for the City of Houston’s subpoenas for Sunday sermons. They wanted to see if any pastor had crossed the line. Had that been established, the city could have used the violation of the Johnson Amendment to put down the lawsuit, thus saving HERO. And that’s where the problem lies.
If the government has the right to examine Biblical teaching, and then ban or penalize it for becoming “too political,” then what’s next? The separation of Church and State would eventually be weathered down, and government would control religion. That has resulted in disaster every single time it has happened throughout history.
Churches are tax-exempt to preserve the separation of church and state by preventing government regulation through tax incentives or penalties. If government wants to ban financial contributions from churches to political causes to keep that separation in tact, fine.
However, the government should never have any say in what is taught from the pulpit, or the Sunday School rooms. Furthermore, churches should be able to advocate for policies that parallel their mission. Stand up, speak up, but don’t pay up.
For those reasons, President Donald Trump’s executive order for the IRS to roll back enforcement of the Johnson Amendment is a good thing, even if it doesn’t make any significant changes to the way things are.