Religious Right Legal Group Issues Misleading Poll On The Johnson Amendment

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is heralding the results of a new poll it commissioned among Protestant pastors and claiming it proves pastors oppose the Johnson Amendment, which is the provision in the tax code that ensures tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, do not endorse political candidates.

The problem for ADF is that the poll doesn’t actually show that at all.

ADF is excited because 91 percent of Protestant pastors said they agree with the statement, “Pastors should have the right to speak freely from the pulpit without the fear of being penalized by the government.” In addition, 73 percent agree that “Congress should remove the IRS’s power to penalize a church because of the content of its pastor’s sermons.”

Faith leaders and activists converged on Capitol Hill in August to tell Congress to leave the Johnson Amendment alone.

But the responses in this poll say nothing about the Johnson Amendment because neither question describes what the Johnson Amendment actually does. In fact, with statements this loaded, I’m surprised ADF didn’t get 100 percent on each question. It’s akin to asking someone, “Would you like to be kicked in the shin?”

Let’s dispel some myths here. Under the Johnson Amendment, tax-exempt houses of worship already can and do speak about any political or social issue they choose in their sermons. The only thing they cannot do is endorse or oppose candidates.

The current law is a safeguard that ensures the tax-exemption subsidy – a lucrative taxpayer-funded benefit – is not used to influence our elections. It also protects tax-exempt organizations from being pressured by political candidates, campaigns and donors to take a side in divisive partisan elections. 

And IRS agents are not roaming the country looking for offensive sermons and then pouncing. The few houses of worship and ministries that have run into problems have engaged in blatantly partisan activities. One church in New York ran a newspaper ad telling people not to vote for a certain candidate. A ministry affiliated with the late Jerry Falwell funneled money to a political action committee.

ADF is probably upset because two recent recent polls show that the American people overwhelmingly support the Johnson Amendment.

ADF also just sent a letter to Congress “on behalf of 4,000 religious leaders,” asking it to weaken the Johnson Amendment. Oddly, the letter fails to name even one of those 4,000 pastors.

Americans United has a ready response to that: In August, we delivered a letter to Capitol Hill signed by more than 4,000 faith leaders who want the Johnson Amendment to remain intact. And, unlike ADF’s anonymous missive, on ours, you can read the names of everyone who signed it.