Tag: LGBT

Gov. Abbott signs SB 24, church/state controversy reignited

Governor Greg AbbottFormer Houston Mayor Annise Parker drew national outrage in 2014 when attorneys for the city of Houston subpoenaed sermon notes and audio from pastors who had organized a petition to force the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) to a public referendum. Pastors who organized the petition said the HERO ordinance violated religious freedoms.

The pastors had collected the signatures needed, but several thousand were rejected when it was discovered that one of the pastors who collected the signatures was not a registered voter. With the signatures disqualified, the petition failed, and HERO was set to be enacted.

That’s when the pastors sued, and during the discovery phase of the suit, lawyers representing the city subpoenaed the pastors’ sermon notes to see if those pastors had violated the law by discussing, promoting, or giving instructions regarding the petition during worship services.

The resulting fallout had pastors, pundits and politicos criticizing the city of Houston to the point that Mayor Parker ordered the city’s attorneys to withdraw the subpoena. The pastors scored a victory, which led to a legal victory, which led to an electoral victory when Houston voters overwhelmingly rejected HERO.

Sunday, at Grace Community Church in The Woodlands, Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took a victory lap as the governor held a bill signing ceremony for SB 24 during worship services. SB 24, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), prohibits local and state government entities from subpoenaing sermon notes, audio or video from pastors, and further prohibits those pastors from being forced to testify about their sermons.

The bill, seen as a response to Houston’s 2014 subpoena, went into effect immediately, however, the way the governor signed the bill reignited the debate over the separation of church and state.

Current law prohibits churches from influencing political elections, or the passing of legislation. While churches can weigh in on issues (such as abortion or same-sex marriage), they cannot lobby in favor of legislation on those issues, nor can they endorse candidates who support their views on the issues.

While President Donald J. Trump’s recent executive order instructing the IRS to stop enforcing the law that bans church involvement in the political process, critics note that the executive order can just as easily be reversed in the next Presidential administration, exposing politically active churches to prosecution, or loss of their tax-exempt status.

The separation of church and state is one of the pillars that upholds the freedom of the American republic. Historically, whenever the church takes control of the government, persecution against non-adherents follows. Whenever the government takes control of the church, blasphemy and heresy follow. Both situations become ripe with corruption.

That’s why Rev. John Leland, a Baptist pastor who preached in Virginia and Massachusetts, strongly advocated for the separation of church and state, supported James Madison, and was instrumental in promoting the passage of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In promoting the separation of church and state, Leland wrote:

Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.

That was the goal of the separation of church and state. Churches would not run the government. Government would not run the churches. Man would be free to serve God in a way that satisfied his conscience.

Churches should participate in the market place of ideas. When government seeks to regulate religious speech, it seeks to take control over the church. However, if churches become “dark money” organizations for political parties, they have not only violated the separation of church and state, they have also deviated from their God-given mission.

Furthermore, any law that forces a man to violate his religious conscience is a law that violates the very essence of man, and the three founding principles of our nation. So, with SB 24 in place, and Gov. Abbott’s and Lt. Gov. Patrick’s victory lap behind us, let us press onward to a world where man is free to believe, churches are free to preach, and where government governs well, and as little as possible.

How the Johnson Amendment is used to target churches

LBJ

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.