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EDITORIAL: Repeal the Johnson Amendment

Obama isn’t the first president to swing the IRS club

The Vietnam War and the "war on poverty" are probably the best-remembered elements of President Lyndon B. Johnson's legacy, but that's only part of it. His maneuvering to use the law to stack the deck in his 1954 Senate re-election campaign has had an impact that's still growing.

He won his Senate seat in 1948 by a mere 87 disputed votes, effectively stealing the election from Coke Stevenson, an immensely popular former governor, and was forever called "Landslide Lyndon," a term that he hated. Six years later, he was opposed by what today would be called "independent groups" and an opponent with tougher anti-communist beliefs. H.L. Hunt, the wealthy oilman, founded the "Facts Forum," and newspaper publisher Frank Gannett founded the Committee for Constitutional Government, which opposed him. Both were tax-exempt under IRS rules as Section 501(c)3 charitable organizations that at the time prohibited them only from engaging in lobbying.

Mr. Johnson changed that section of the tax code with a little help from a Massachusetts congressman, John W. McCormack, who was later speaker of the House. The revised statute barred charitable groups from endorsing or opposing a candidate. For 178 years of American independence, rabbis, priests and preachers could stand in their pulpits and say anything they liked about candidates, just like other Americans whose First Amendment rights remained intact. The tax code he stacked to preserve his Senate seat has remained stacked since.

Now the shadow of Johnson's stacked deck has fallen over two of the most respected clergymen in America and their organizations, Samaritan's Purse, a charity run by the Rev. Franklin Graham, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which organized his father's evangelistic crusades around the world for five decades. Both were subjects of IRS audits in October 2012, shortly after the evangelistic group ran ads supporting North Carolina's amendment to preserve marriage, and urging Americans to vote for candidates supporting "biblical values." No specific candidate was endorsed or opposed.

In a letter to President Obama, Franklin Graham contends the audits were deliberate: "In light of what the IRS admitted to on Friday, May 10, 2013, and subsequent revelations from other sources, I do not believe that the IRS audit of our two organizations last year is a coincidence — or justifiable." Mr. Graham lamented the necessity to use donated funds to pay for the time and effort in gathering the records the IRS auditors demanded. Both groups were eventually given a clean bill of (fiscal) health. They're still out-of-pocket for the unnecessary expenses of the audit.

The Grahams find themselves in the same boat as pro-Israel organizations and the Tea Party groups whose 501(c)4 "social welfare" applications have kicked up the dust in the expanding IRS investigation. We can expect more sordid revelations; Congress has only begun to delve into what happened at the tax agency. The first hearing was held in the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday, and more are on the way.

Once politicians get around to considering a legislative fix, they should start by repealing the Johnson Amendment. Free speech is free speech, and the First Amendment guarantees it for all, not just politicians, but rabbis, priests and preachers as well. It's a simple act of constitutional fairness, 59 years overdue.

The Washington Times

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