Aftershocks from the Supreme Court Earthquake

The Supreme Court’s ruling that Congress’ prohibition against corporate contributions violates the free speech rights of those corporations may mean that the chains the IRS has placed on the First Amendment free speech and freedom of religion rights of pastors and churches may have been broken as well.

The political earthquake in Massachusetts with the election of Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate on January 19 was not the only political earthquake that took place last week. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court’s earthquake may have set free some political captives that no one is much talking about.

On January 21, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the campaign finance laws prohibiting corporations from making political contributions was an unconstitutional restriction on the free speech rights of corporations. Most everyone thought of the ruling in terms of huge corporations being able to make contributions and to buy elections. Others thought of it in terms of the “little guy” having his financial contribution being so dwarfed by corporate contributions that their contributions would become meaningless. But there may be another significant “aftershock” from the judicial earthquake that upset the campaign finance law apple cart.

A major issue among conservative evangelicals over the years has been the IRS’s never-challenged rule that prohibits pastors from saying what they want from their pulpits about political candidates. And, of course, many churches, also bound by those rules, are also corporations.

So the question is this: If the government cannot suppress political speech in terms of contributions by corporations, can it suppress the political speech of pastors and churches who, unlike corporations, also have a First Amendment freedom to practice their religion? And what about this: Can churches now make political contributions if they want to? Would not their “dual” constitutional rights—to free speech and to freedom of religion—not also give them even more of a right to make contributions than “big tobacco,” insurance companies and financial institutions?

For years, groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State have sent letters to pastors reminding them of the IRS’s rule limiting their ability to talk about candidates and threatening to report them to the IRS if they violated the rule. It’s been a huge stick that liberals have used to discourage pastors from informing their congregations about what is happening in politics and what their representatives are doing, thereby providing one fewer source of information to their people when they go to cast a vote.

Now, there are some pastors and churches that wouldn’t talk about a political issue or a candidate if they were paid to do so. For them, this ruling won’t make any difference. But to those who would if they were not concerned about protecting the tax status of their church, this political earthquake may be like the one that set free Paul and Barnabas when they were in chains.

Perhaps the chains the IRS has put around our nation’s pulpits have been broken.