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Fr. Z's Blog: I.R.S. has a 'Political Activities Referral Committee' which spies on preaching (The {1954} Johnson Amendment [Bro. Lyndon])

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Fr. Z's Blog

IRS has a “Political Activities Referral Committee” which spies on preaching

5 August 2014

by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

While I was at the recent Napa Institute gathering, I got to know Kristina Arriaga, Executive Director of The Becket Fund, which defends religious freedom. They guided the Hobby Lobby decision to a good conclusion and for that we owe them a lot.

I had this note from them today. It included this:

Dear Friends,

I grew up in a household where we were expected to pepper all tales with a bit of Cuban exaggeration. This was, after all, essential for good storytelling.

So, in a way, I wish I were making this up.

Within the IRS, there is, no lie, a “Political Activities Referral Committee” unit that investigates whether preachers have said something from the pulpit in violation of the IRS rules regarding preaching. It even has an acronym: “PARC.”

How do I know this?

Because, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation—a lawsuit where we, the Becket Fund, intervened–the IRS sent FFRF [the Madison, WI based stinky Freedom From Religion Foundation] documents to reassure the activist atheist group that they were really working hard on being very diligent in their monitoring of preachers. The public only knows about this because of the Becket Fund’s intervention, forcing these documents to become part of the public record.

Of course, the IRS rules on this matter are not very clear, so who knows exactly what the PARC unit really monitors or how.

The official IRS letter, which I link here, states: “With regard to these referrals that concern violations by churches, the PARC has determined that as of June 23, 2014, 99 churches merit a high priority examination. Of these 99 churches, the number of churches alleged to have violated the prohibition during 2010 is 15, during 2011 is 18, during 2012 is 65, and during 2013 is one.”

“99 churches”? “Prohibition”? Really?

The reference to this “prohibition” is likely referring to the Johnson Amendment, a change made to the IRS code in 1954 to prevent non-profits from talking about politicians, and accidentally ensnared preachers who taught about moral issues with political implications.

Ironically, had this amendment been in place, it is very likely the IRS would have pressured Reverend Martin Luther King into censoring sermons he made from the pulpit. The IRS could have also intimidated Reverend Billy Graham to prevent him from preaching with Dr. King in 1953. Pastors that denounced the Vietnam era wars—they too could have been deemed to fall within the boundaries of the IRS “prohibition.”

Clearly, it is not the role of the government to censor what a preacher says from the pulpit to his/her congregation. Yet our government wants to give “a high priority examination” to 99 of them.

PARC reminds me of another committee I know well. In Cuba, the government established in each neighborhood block the “Committee for the Defense of the Revolution” in order to make sure all citizens complied with the state’s idea of moral and social order.

It seems like a bit of Cuban exaggeration to compare our situation—doesn’t it?

But, from where I sit, I am watching a government bureaucracy that is attempting to shove out—under the penalty of fines and threats– any person or group of persons who are driven by convictions that are different from the government’s convictions.

If the government decides that once you open a family business you give up your constitutionally guaranteed religious liberty, who are the owners of Hobby Lobby to disagree?

If the government determines that contraception is vital and certain employers must pay for it, who are the Little Sisters of the Poor to say they can’t and won’t pay or make anyone else pay for it?

If the government decides what makes acceptable preaching, who are preachers to disagree?

Well, I’ll tell you who they are. They are Americans with constitutionally guaranteed protections. And we at the Becket Fund exist to defend them.

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