In a first step out on political reform (setting aside his executive order on lobbying), Donald Trump promised churches he would relieve them of the restrictions of the Johnson amendment on campaign activity. He didn’t go into any detail. But over time there have been different proposals for protecting religious institutions’ political speech. One of them is arguably sensible, while another, more aggressive reform of this nature is best avoided. Attention began to turn more widely to this topic when in the Bush 43 years there was a suggestion that IRS was monitoring sermons and prepared to act against churches where it found campaign content in speech from the pulpit. A notorious case involved a sermon that was critical of the war in Iraq and included favorable comments about Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and critical ones of his opponent George W. Bush. Nothing happened; the IRS backed off. But it remains the case that while the Service seems to have no particular appetite for regulatory action based on this kind of speech, it could, if it wished. And as the Bush/Kerry episode revealed, the issue can cut in either partisan or ideological direction.
That is one issue, and a reform has been advanced to address it. Its sole point would be to allow for speech in the ordinary course of communications by a religious institution. In 2013, an organization called the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations recommended that religious institutions be free to make communications “related to one or more political candidates or campaigns… made in the ordinary course of… regular and customary… exempt purposes,” provided that the expenses incurred are de minimis. The exemption would apply specifically to sermons delivered “as part of a religious organization’s regular and customary worship services.”
This seems not especially ambitious in scope, and it would keep the IRS out of enforcement activity it is inclined to avoid, and should. There is an opposing view that opening the door to church endorsements invites abuse. Professor Ellen Aprill writes that “posting sermons and other communications on congregational Web pages and distributing them through social media are now common practices.” This would allow for “wide distribution in our digital age” of sermons with political content. This is true: Communication at “no cost” does not mean in this day and age that it will be limited in transmission. But it seems peculiar to take something as straightforward as an organizational endorsement and deny it on the basis that too many people might hear or read it.
Full Article: Church Speech –.