As Washington struggles to come up with a new health care insurance system, Jim Garlow believes he has a solution, but he worries about sharing it publicly — simply because he is a pastor.
Garlow, lead pastor of Skyline Church in La Mesa, Calif., blames a provision in the federal tax code known as the Johnson Amendment for what he calls the “self-censorship” of pastors across the nation. It forbids 501(c)(3) nonprofits, a category that includes most of the nation’s churches and other charitable organizations, from getting directly involved in elections. (It is not a criminal statute; violators face only the loss of the organization’s tax-exempt status.) Many hail it as a protector of Thomas Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation” between church and state, but to Garlow and other outspoken pastors around the nation, it is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.
“Morally and theologically, I don’t believe the government has any role in dictating what a church or faith community says or does not say in the pulpit at all,” Garlow said. “It a matter of conscience, based on that particular pastor and that congregation.”
The amendment only explicitly prohibits outright endorsements or opposition of candidates running for office, but Garlow, along with thousands of other pastors and advocacy groups, fears that speaking out on hot-button political issues, such as health care or immigration, could also violate the amendment, causing their organizations to lose their tax-exempt status.
As a result, Garlow calls the IRS “the pulpit police.”