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Bill aims to protect ‘free speech’ in church

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MOORE, Okla. — The people in the pews may be a captive audience, but Pastor Keith Jacobs feels like he’s a captive, at times, to federal rules restricting what he can and can’t preach.

“I feel like I have the freedom to talk about issues, I have the freedom to talk about what the scripture says - what is right, what is wrong - but, because of the way the law is presented now, that I cannot endorse a person,” said Jacobs, who leads the Regency Park Baptist Church.

 U.S. Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma City) said the restriction is unconstitutional.

He’s taking steps to repeal what’s known as the Johnson Amendment.

President Donald Trump said, on the campaign trail, he would be willing to repeal the amendment, as well.

Passed in the 1950s, the law threatens to take away the tax-exempt status of churches and other 501(c)(3) nonprofits if they endorse or oppose specific political candidates.

“The federal government and the IRS should never have the ability to inhibit free speech,” Lankford said in a statement. “The Free Speech Fairness Act is needed to prevent government intrusion and suppression of free speech.”

Churches and nonprofits have long been advocates of specific issues, but repealing the law means preachers, like Jacobs, no longer have to tiptoe around the people who support or oppose those issues, out of fear of losing his tax-exempt status.

“Churches should not be forced to be quiet,” he said. “We should be able to share our views and our beliefs, and I think that that’s right - a right we have as a church.”

Twenty minutes north in Oklahoma City, Rev. Lori Walke wears a pin in support of Muslims and immigrants.

It’s one of several issues she holds near and dear.

“My faith community certainly believes the church should be involved in politics, and that’s because, if we abandon politics, we abandon the shaping of the community,” she said. “They expect me to be in the forefront or in the fray.”

But, despite her community activism, Walke said she always stops short of speaking about candidates.

“The church should never be a puppet for the government or for a particular politician but focused on advocating issues and fighting laws that are unjust,” she said. “That really blurs the line between church and state. Churches are not partisan institutions.”

And, since churches are already allowed to advocate for issues, Walke said she doesn’t see a need for a new law.

Still, Jacobs said issues and candidates are often tied together.

It’s his responsibility to make sure his parishioners are aware of the people who are more likely to focus on biblical issues, he said.

“Sometimes, I’m afraid the average person may not take the time to find out where the candidates really stand,” he said. “I think, if this is repealed, it’s going to come on the pastors to really do their homework, do their research, and know where these people stand and what we’re telling our congregation is true.”

The Family Policy Institute of Oklahoma announced Wednesday it supports Lankford's bill:

"Churches, non-profit groups and Oklahomans that support them, do not need the IRS policing their speech and peaceful assembly. The Free Speech Fairness Act will simply restore the constitutional liberties of Freedom of Speech and the Free Exercise of Religion already enshrined in the First Amendment.

The Johnson Amendment of 1954, named after powerful Senator and eventual President Lyndon B. Johnson, was rushed through Congress with little scrutiny for the purpose of helping Johnson win re-election by muzzling and intimidating his opponents. With such a dubious background, it is time to remove the restrictive power of IRS sanctions from those Oklahomans serving the poor, feeding the needy, strengthening families, and improving education systems.

Oklahomans should applaud Senator Lankford for his courage to take on the IRS and the unconstitutional Johnson Amendment."