FFRF is alarmed by two common misconceptions Grassley repeated a few days ago at a town hall regarding the Johnson Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
On Feb. 23 at the Floyd County Courthouse in Charles City, Grassley first mischaracterized the Johnson Amendment: "What I want to make sure is that this minister, or any other minister, can't be jailed just because she makes a political statement — within — from the pulpit. That's what I think the Johnson Amendment restricts, and it violates freedom of speech and free of religion."
Then, he discussed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act: "That bill was passed specifically because the Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that somebody in Oregon was being denied — the state of Oregon was denying their freedom of religion."
FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor have written a letter to Grassley correcting him on both of his assertions.
The Johnson Amendment will never lead to a pastor being arrested and it does not violate either free speech or free exercise, Barker and Gaylor emphasize.
The Johnson Amendment is a simple yet misunderstood rule. Churches are fully permitted to talk about issues and engage in some nonpartisan lobbying. The rule, passed in 1954, did not stop, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. from preaching civil rights from the pulpit. The Johnson Amendment simply means tax-exempt groups may not abuse that privilege by endorsing a candidate or engaging in partisan politicking. This commonsense rule applies to all 501(c)(3) nonprofits. If a (c)(3) nonprofit or church desires to wade into politics, it is free to do so — but it must then forego tax exemption.
The amendment is not a ban or even a burden on free speech or religious exercise. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held in 2000 that the electioneering ban is not a violation of a church's free speech rights, free exercise rights, or rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"The push to repeal the Johnson Amendment is instead about money and power," Barker and Gaylor assert. "Except churches, all other charities have to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service that tracks every penny. Churches don't report any of this information. If the Johnson Amendment is repealed, millions, possibly billions, of dollars will inevitably flow into and out of churches for political purposes."
And then we come to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was passed because the Supreme Court ruled that it was NOT a violation of two men's free exercise rights to fire them from their job as drug counselors for taking drugs, Barker and Gaylor clarify. In 1990, two peyote-smoking practitioners of Native American religion were fired from their job as drug counselors and ruled ineligible for unemployment benefits because they were using peyote. They challenged the denial, claiming that their religion made them smoke peyote.
In Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court upheld the denial of benefits because the law against using peyote was not "prohibiting the exercise of religion." Justice Antonin Scalia, who Grassley greatly admires as a champion of individual liberties (especially religious liberties), wrote the opinion in Smith. After religious hysteria exploded following the Smith decision, Congress unwisely passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a super-statute that effectively amends every other federal law.
The Johnson Amendment must be preserved and honored. Congress should instead repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Now that FFRF has educated Grassley, he should stop spreading wrong information about the two laws.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state-church watchdog with more than 27,000 members all over the country, including in Iowa.