Erik Stanley, senior counsel and director of the Center for Christian Ministries for the Alliance Defending Freedom, discusses the Johnson Amendment and how it affects the work of both individuals and groups who are spurred to action and outreach because of their faith.
Thank you for joining us for this week’s special Focus on Faith edition of Family Policy Matters. Today, I am excited to have as my guest a tireless advocate for the important role faithful individuals and organizations play in our country. Erik Stanley serves as Senior Counsel and Director of the Center for Christian Ministries for Alliance Defending Freedom or commonly known as ADF.
I am grateful to have Erik on the show today to discuss what is often a confusing, complicated and misunderstood topic for many active religious organizations. I’m speaking about the Johnson Amendment. Erik, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show today.
ERIK STANLEY: It’s great to be with you. Thanks for having me on.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Absolutely. Erik on this program, we typically like to begin with personal stories because we know that our culture, our society, our government, our communities, they are all a compilation of individual stories and experiences. So, if you would take a few moments and share your own story, maybe about your childhood, your marriage, family, and particularly those experiences that have shaped your faith into the motivating factor it is in your work today.
ERIK STANLEY: Sure. I came to Christ at a very early age, as a young boy. And when we were growing up in east Texas at the time, my parents were homeschooling my sister and I. I remember at the time that homeschooling then was illegal in the state of Texas and we had seen some stories and heard stories of families who had been split apart because they had just chosen to homeschool their children as a matter of their religious principles. And that sat with me as a young man—as a young boy, really. I just thought, “This is wrong!” And as I developed in my faith in Christ and really sought what the Lord’s will was for my life, I just felt a very clear call to use the talents and gifts that God has given me to really right those injustices, to right the wrongs—But most importantly, to use the legal system to keep the door open for the Gospel. That’s really what my parents were wanting to do, was to train us up in the Gospel, in the way of the Lord. And so by God’s grace, that’s what I’ve been able to do for almost the last 20 years now. It’s been a true blessing.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Erik, would you please tell us a little bit about how you came to be involved in the very specific and vital mission of ADF and why that work is so important for not just your individual clients, but also for our entire nation as well.
ERIK STANLEY: Sure. ADF has been around since the early 90s and we were formed by a group of leaders—Christian leaders: Larry Burkett, James Dobson, Bill Bright and others, who came together really for the sole purpose of creating an organization that, in their minds, would be kind of the anti-ACLU in America. But it was really Dr. Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, that distilled ADF’s mission down to really one sentence. He said, “ADF, your mission is to keep the legal door open for the spread of the Gospel.” And so that’s what we’ve been doing since the early 90’s, is really finding ways to take on cases and use the legal system to keep the door open for the Gospel. All for the purpose that’s really, the only thing that’s going to change our culture and our nation, is that when the Gospel can be freely proclaimed and when people whose lives have been changed by the Holy Spirit can live out the Gospel freely in their lives and follow Christ fully in their lives. That’s when our nation can change, when people’s hearts can turn to the Lord. And so, that’s what we’ve been doing. I’ve been focusing at ADF here for the last 10 years—I was with a different group doing religious liberties work before that time—but for the last ten years, I’ve really been focusing on the church and on religious ministries, really hoping to embolden and help protect the church and its pastors to speak freely and to proclaim the Gospel freely, to provide that legal space so that the church can just be the church and minister the Gospel freely.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Erik, that really resonates deeply within my own heart. Part of my story is that I was privileged and blessed to be a pastor of three churches over a 32 or 33 year period of time and I was frequently in discussions with others about the Johnson Amendment and about its impact upon religious freedom and upon pastors and churches and so forth. I know one particular area of law about which I know a great deal and have some excellent insight is of course the Johnson Amendment. This deals with this intersection of faith and public life in some very tangible ways. For starters, could you just explain what is the Johnson Amendment, and what impact does it have on the activities of religious Americans today?
ERIK STANLEY: Sure. The Johnson Amendment is the last sentence of Section 501(c)3 of the Tax Code. And it basically says that non-profit entities, including churches, cannot participate in or intervene in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. It was not a part of the Tax Code until 1954, when Lyndon Johnson was running for reelection to the U.S. Senate from the State of Texas. And he was being opposed by two very powerful, secular non-profits that believed he was soft on Communism. They were passing out thousands of pieces of literature against him and opposing his candidacy. And so on July 2, 1954, Johnson—being a very powerful senator, knew how to work the levers of power—showed up on the floor of the Senate and proposed this last sentence of Section 501(c)3, proposed it as an Amendment to a massive tax overhaul bill that the Senate was considering. And it went into law—the Senate passed it with a voice vote and it went into law and President Eisenhower signed it on August 16 of 1954. What ended up happening then was that the IRS became the primary enforcer of the Johnson Amendment. And what it has done over the years has morphed it into really a “Speech Code” that applies to all non-profits, but especially churches. To tell pastors that they cannot say anything from the pulpit that might in any way, even indirectly, support or oppose a candidate for office. There’s a lot of churches and pastors that believe pastors shouldn’t be endorsing candidates from the pulpit and that kind of thing, which is fine and I understand that, but I think what a lot of Americans don’t understand though, and what a lot of churchgoers don’t understand is that the IRS has even taken it as far to say that if your pastor even talks about issues in a way that could be seen as favoring one candidate or another, or if your pastor opposes a particular candidate for office because of his immorality or stance on biblical issues, then that’s enough to violate the Johnson Amendment and give the IRS the power to come in and to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status. It’s a massive overreach of government power. It was unconstitutional when it was passed in 1954. It’s unconstitutional now. Federal law has not allowed anybody to challenge it to this point. We really tried to draw attention to the Johnson Amendment over the years and highlight its unconstitutionality and seek for ways to have it be changed, because it does work—really substantially what I call—a chill, on the free speech of America’s pastors when it comes to anything that intersects with an election cycle.
THOMAS GRAHAM: I recall being a pastor and having multiple discussions with colleagues in ministry and because there was, at that time, a vague uncertainty about just how far-reaching this amendment was, everybody that I associated with—or many of the people I associated with—tended to err on the side of extreme caution. I suppose you could equate the Johnson Amendment in that respect, as sort of a muzzling device to keep pastors from openly sharing their thoughts about matters of particular concern to their people. Would you agree?
ERIK STANLEY: I absolutely would agree. I think, as I said, the way the IRS has interpreted and enforced the Johnson Amendment has really resulted a lot more in fear and intimidation factor over the years, as opposed to any type of measured enforcement through the court system. It’s impossible for somebody to sue the IRS right now and say the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional. You need to have it actually applied against a church—the IRS to levy a penalty and then for the church to challenge that as unconstitutional. Well, that hasn’t happened. And the reason it hasn’t happened since 1954 is because most churches just do what is the easiest thing, which is to just be very quiet and very silent about anything having to do with candidates or an election or anything like that. As an example, wherever you fall on the political spectrum, or on the spectrum of whether pastors should endorse candidates from the pulpit or not—I personally know a lot of pastors over the last election cycle that felt very clear to oppose a certain candidate from the pulpit, because of immorality, because of the stance on biblical issues, whatever it might be. And by that I mean both, either Mrs. Clinton or President Trump. So, you look at that and you think, “Well, those pastors felt compelled to say something to their congregations about that. And that’s been the history over the years, is that pastors before 1954 did speak out on these things. But after 1954, would only do it in really extreme circumstances. But there has been a chill on the speech of pastors, a backing away from saying anything that would maybe draw an IRS audit. And our message to pastors has been clear for the last ten years or so really. We’ve been saying, ” Pastors, you have a right—a constitutional right to speak freely from the pulpit. And you shouldn’t be intimidated or silenced by the government when you do so.” The government has no business intruding into the pulpits of America to decide what pastors can and cannot say. We’ve offered for any church or any pastor who is in any way punished by the IRS for something its pastor says from the pulpit, that ADF will represent them free of charge. And we will launch a constitutional challenge against the Johnson Amendment and seek to have it overturned, because we really do believe that pastors need to have that right to speak freely restored, not have to worry whether the IRS is going to come knocking on their door.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Erik, that’s so well said. What would you say is the most important thing for a pastor or church or any religiously motivated ministry to know about the Johnson Amendment and its effect on their work?
ERIK STANLEY: I would say, probably, the most important thing to know is that it’s unconstitutional. When they hear the messages from the IRS or from others that, “Oh, you better not say that from the pulpit or you better not do that at a church function,” the message they need to understand is that the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional. Our government, our Constitution is set up in a way that there is a healthy separation of church and state, which means that the government stays on its side of the wall and doesn’t intrude into the internal affairs of the church, and specifically, doesn’t intrude on what pastors can say from the pulpit. That’s a healthy separation of church and state. And so, what the Johnson Amendment does is it violates that. Our encouragement to pastors is very simple: Don’t worry about the intricacy of it, don’t worry about where is the line, where isn’t the line. You worry about saying what God has put on your heart and what God has called you to say and know that ADF is going to be there to back you up and that we will be there to help protect your constitutional right to do that. So, just two messages: Speak freely, know the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional, and have ADF’s number and stay connected to us.
THOMAS GRAHAM: I love that Erik. I can just sort of sense that there are listeners to this program who have just heard that and suddenly a surge of strength just poured into their heart and mind. So, thank you for that.
Erik, where can our listeners go to learn more about the Johnson Amendment, as well as the good work you all are doing at Alliance Defending Freedom to protect the first freedoms of Americans to practice and live out their faith? Where should they go?
ERIK STANLEY: They can go to our website at adflegal.org. And I’ll give you a special website, specifically for churches. It’s adfchurchalliance.org. That’s a specific place that churches can go to plug into what we’re doing, specifically with churches, and to really stay connected to ADF on a very consistent basis. So, adfchurchalliance.org is where you can get all that information.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Excellent. Erik, thank you so very much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters. I am so grateful for the wonderful work that you are doing at this intersection of faith and public life. May God bless you and all the other attorneys and good people working with Alliance Defending Freedom.
ERIK STANLEY: Thanks so much. It’s my pleasure to be here.
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