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Hawley favors restoring free speech rights to religious leaders

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley believes a 1954 law banning pastors from speaking on political topics should be repealed. Known as the Johnson Amendment, it is part of the federal tax code and says religious leaders cannot speak out for or against political issues or endorse candidates, among other things.

Hawley responded to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that released the transcript of Hawley’s well-received speech to a group of religious leaders in St. Louis. The newspaper reported the story as something new but Hawley’s position on the subject had been known for some time and falls within the mainstream of a growing movement to restore constitutional speech rights to the nation’s religious institutions.

Hawley called the Johnson Amendment “unconstitutional” and says the government should not dictate what pastors can and cannot say within the walls of a religious institution like a church.

Religious liberty, says Hawley, “is under attack in this country and it’s a terrible thing.”

Most Americans do not realize that the law has really only been in effect since the Eisenhower administration. Lydon B. Johnson had proposed the law and saw it through the legislative process as the senior senator from Texas. In the 1960s, as protests grew in the streets across the nation, Johnson’s administration effectively used the law to tamp down criticism of the unpopular war from America’s religious institutions.

Since that time, non-profit organizations that violate the IRS code face losing their tax exempt status and could also face hefty fines.

Hawley, who is running to replace incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill, shared with the large crowd that Europe has effectively “banished faith in the public arena, including public schools and in the work place. You can see what it’s done to their society. You know, there’s a reason Europeans only have, what is it, one child or so per family?” Hawley said.

Commenting on the recent civil unrest across Europe, Hawley observed “That’s a society that has no hope for the future. That’s a vision of a society that has lost the influence of the gospel.”

Pastors speaking form the pulpit on political issues had, prior to 1954, been expected and even welcome. It was the church that fueled debate on America’s independence movement in Colonial America and ending the importation of slaves and then slavery. Lively debates from America’s pulpits also helped create child welfare laws, end child labor and give women he vote.

A poll taken in 2017 found that half of Evangelical Christians in the United States favor repeal of the law, as reported by Alliance Defending Freedom. 

–By Dwight Widaman