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The free speech Congressman: Walter Jones v. Lyndon Johnson

By John Plecnik
web posted January 3, 2005

In a world where most politicos are content to toe the Party line and few dare violate the precepts of political correctness, one congressman has taken a stand. U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) has chosen to make free speech a defining issue of his career, and he is campaigning hard to extend First Amendment rights everywhere from college campuses to religious congregations. Many detractors argue that reform is unnecessary on campus and unseemly in church, but thus far, the congressman has ignored his naysayers and forged onward.

On the religious front, many might be curious as to why our panoply of pastors, rabbis, and ministers refrained from commenting on the candidates during the 2004 election cycle. With a pro-life president seeking reelection against a socially liberal senator, one would expect countless churches to endorse the former. Why the eerie silence?

Approximately half a century ago, then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-T.X.) successfully attached a restriction on the partisan activity of non-profit groups to that year's tax bill. At the time, no one recognized the seemingly minor attachment as a major development in the American political or religious communities. Yet, the relationship between God and government had been significantly altered. After the sea change, churches were prohibited from engaging in partisan activities such as endorsing candidates. Violators can lose their tax exempt status.

Jones receives the Friend of the Taxpayer Award from Americans for Tax Reform
Jones receives the Friend of the Taxpayer Award from Americans for Tax Reform

Congressman Jones accurately labels Lyndon Johnson's law as politically motivated. Many Texas-based non-profits opposed Johnson's reelection bid for the U.S. Senate, and he had no intention of allowing them to interfere for a second time. Using his position as majority leader, Johnson was able to effectively legislate his opposition out of existence. Even he, however, probably failed to appreciate the extent to which liberal activists would utilize his handiwork. Since that time, ‘progressive' groups like the ACLU have used Johnson's law to blackmail our religious leaders into silence.

In 2004, one activist even threatened some Catholic churches with lawsuits over denying pro-abortion politicians the sacrament of Holy Communion, alleging the denial to be a form of prohibited, political speech. As time passes, Johnson's law continues to grow in influence and apply to an increasing number of situations. When one misplaced line of partisan speech could potentially bankrupt the neighborhood church, is it any wonder that priests are unwilling to comment on the moral aspects of politics?

As it is, religious establishments are forced to silently watch candidates make a mockery of their respective doctrines, or lose their tax exempt status. Congressman Jones wants to put an end to this Hobbesian choice. He has joined likeminded legislators to sponsor a repeal of Johnson's law. Though House support for the measure remains strong, it would likely fail to pass the slow moving Senate in a straight up-or-down vote.

Taking a page out of Johnson's playbook, Congressman Jones hopes to attach the repeal to a larger, must-pass bill. If this strategy succeeds, Johnson's law will die in much the same manner as it was born: largely unnoticed. Even if Jones wins in congress, it may take another fifty years to get the word out. For Jones to beat Johnson and truly reinstate religious free speech, he will need countless allies on Capitol Hill and across the country.

John Plecnik is a 21-year-old law student at Duke University and Executive Editor of The Devil's Advocate.  As Policy Advisor for the Duke Chapter, John authored the first-ever statewide platform for the North Carolina Federation of College Republicans.


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