“The Free Speech Fairness Act”
In January 2017, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) introduced this bill on the Senate side and Representatives Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Jody Hice (R-GA) introduced it on the House side. These bills are identical to a bill introduced last Congress in conjunction with Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an annual event during which certain groups try to persuade religious leaders to break federal law and endorse candidates for public office.
The bill does not fully repeal current law, but significantly undermines it. It would allow tax-exempt organizations—both houses of worship and secular nonprofits—to make statements endorsing or opposing candidates for public office so long as those statements are made in the ordinary course of carrying out their tax-exempt purpose and don’t incur more than de minimis incremental expenses. Although this might sound like a narrow exemption to current law, it is quite broad.
Under this bill, an organization could endorse one or more candidates in all of its activities, correspondence, and other written material. For example, the president of a large university could endorse a candidate in its weekly alumni email. A pastor could include an endorsement of a candidate in his sermon every Sunday, in the lesson taught at each Bible study, and in every bulletin or newsletter his church issues. This would allow partisan campaign politics to pervade every aspect of the organization, fundamentally changing its purpose and character.
This bill, introduced by Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) in January 2017, would completely repeal the law that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates. Both religious and secular tax-exempt organizations could “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign” supporting or opposing a political candidate for public office. Jones has been introducing this bill for more than 15 years. In 2002, the House actually voted down this bill 178-239, with 46 Republicans voting against it.