Faith broad­caster: Chris­tian free speech un­der as­sault

Hopes tax-ex­empt groups can be po­lit­i­cal

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY LAURA KELLY

The chief of­fi­cer of the Na­tional Re­li­gious Broad­cast­ers says he is heart­ened by prom­i­nent con­ser­va­tives fill­ing key roles in the new ad­min­is­tra­tion, but has lin­ger­ing con­cerns about Pres­i­dent Trump’s sup­port for leg­is­la­tion deal­ing with re­li­gious free­dom and pro­tec­tions.

“I am en­cour­aged and frus­trated,” said Jerry A. John­son, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Na­tional Re­li­gious Broad­cast­ers, which com­prises more than 1,000 me­dia and com­mu­ni­ca­tions or­ga­ni­za­tions broad­cast­ing to nearly 60 mil­lion lis­ten­ers.

In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with ed­i­tors and re­porters at The Wash­ing­ton Times, Mr. John­son ad­dressed con­cerns of con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians about the role the fed­eral gov­ern­ment plays in pro­tect­ing their re­li­gious free­doms. He blamed par­ti­san­ship in Wash­ing­ton, not the pres­i­dent, as the cause for de­lays in leg­isla­tive ac­tion sought by Chris­tians.

“I said it’s D.C. It’s di­vided gov­ern­ment, it’s leg­isla­tive sched­ule. It’s not Don­ald Trump,” said Mr. John­son, a pas­tor, for­mer ra­dio broad­caster and col­lege dean.

A top con­cern among Chris­tians is Mr.

Trump’s call to re­peal the John­son Amend­ment. Pro­posed by Sen. Lyn­don John­son in 1954, the amend­ment pre­vents tax-ex­empt non­profit groups from par­tic­i­pat­ing in po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing pro­mot­ing or op­pos­ing can­di­dates.

Last month Mr. Trump signed the “Pro­mot­ing Free Speech and Re­li­gious Lib­erty” ex­ec­u­tive or­der, which di­rects the Trea­sury De­part­ment — and, by ex­ten­sion, the IRS — not to im­pose tax penal­ties or with­draw tax-ex­empt sta­tus from qual­i­fied or­ga­ni­za­tions that speak out “about moral or po­lit­i­cal is­sues from a re­li­gious per­spec­tive.”

The move is largely seen as sup­port for re­peal of the John­son Amend­ment, but the re­li­gious broad­cast­ers leader said it was a missed op­por­tu­nity for Mr. Trump to nul­lify the amend­ment out­right.

How­ever, Mr. John­son ex­pressed con­fi­dence that the Free Speech and Fair­ness Act will be ap­proved by Congress. In­tro­duced in Jan­uary by Rep. Wal­ter B. Jones, North Carolina Repub­li­can, the leg­is­la­tion seeks to amend tax codes so that tax-ex­empt or­ga­ni­za­tions can re­tain their sta­tus and make state­ments about po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns.

“I think it will pass,” he said. “I spoke to Speaker [Paul D.] Ryan about it two weeks ago. I be­lieve it’s go­ing to pass. I be­lieve it will pass. The ver­sion is not that it’s an ab­so­lute re­peal, it’s es­sen­tially go­ing to be churches may speak out on politics.”

Mr. John­son said he be­lieves the First Amend­ment free speech rights of Chris­tians — es­pe­cially on so­cial me­dia and in­ter­net plat­forms — are un­der at­tack in the U.S., and he wants his or­ga­ni­za­tion to be the ad­vo­cacy group that stands up for them.

“Ev­ery Chris­tian, re­ally, at this point, is a com­mu­ni­ca­tor, us­ing me­dia some way to com­mu­ni­cate, and we want to be for them what the NRA is for the Sec­ond Amend­ment. We want the NRB to be for the First Amend­ment,” said the Bap­tist pas­tor, whose South­ern drawl lends a mea­sured and de­lib­er­ate qual­ity to his speech. “We want to make sure that they are able to have a level space on the play­ing field and a place in the pub­lic square.”

He said he’s buoyed by Mr. Trump’s over­tures to Chris­tians, which is in op­po­si­tion to a “mood of censorship, a mood of dis­crim­i­na­tion, a mood of treat­ing peo­ple of faith dif­fer­ent” un­der eight years of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, par­tic­u­larly among top­ics con­cern­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and Is­lam.

“The two points of censorship we see [are] prob­a­bly the Is­lam is­sue … and the sex­u­al­ity is­sue,” he said. “We see in our coun­try — as well in Europe — Chris­tians in the work­place, in the me­dia, the mil­i­tary and else­where. There’s a great pressure now com­ing to give in on the same-sex mar­riage is­sue, or trans­sex­ual is­sues. So we see these right now as the wedge is­sues on free­dom of speech, free­dom of re­li­gion and free­dom of press.”

‘Per­son­nel is pol­icy’

Re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions and in­di­vid­u­als who speak out against Is­lam and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity are most threat­ened by neg­a­tive reper­cus­sions from gov­ern­ment agen­cies like the IRS, the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, Mr. John­son said.

In 2013 the IRS ad­mit­ted to tar­get­ing con­ser­va­tive groups for tax scru­tiny, bury­ing them un­der lengthy ap­pli­ca­tions and us­ing in­tru­sive au­dits to in­tim­i­date them. The head of the IRS at the time, Steven T. Miller, re­signed over the con­tro­versy, and the agency con­tin­ues to be em­broiled in a num­ber of class-ac­tion law­suits filed by the tar­geted groups.

Mr. John­son said NRB mem­bers The Billy Gra­ham Evan­ge­lis­tic As­so­ci­a­tion and Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian ra­dio host James Dob­son charge they also were sin­gled out and bul­lied by the tax-col­lect­ing agency.

The Na­tional Re­li­gious Broad­cast­ers also has con­cerns about threats to the ac­cred­i­ta­tion of Chris­tian schools, and that their pri­vate sta­tus would not con­tinue to pro­tect them from di­rect­ing the val­ues of their stu­dents.

Mr. John­son ex­plained his con­cerns by draw­ing a par­al­lel be­tween Ti­tle IX fund­ing for gen­der equal­ity in ath­let­ics and how sim­i­lar mech­a­nisms could be ap­plied to pro­tect the rights of ho­mo­sex­u­als and trans­sex­u­als, who are viewed as con­trary to Chris­tian val­ues.

“If you make the trans­sex­ual is­sue part of that pack­age, or the same-sex … doc­trine part of that pack­age, quickly you would have a lever there with [the Coun­cil for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion] and the re­gion­als — like South­ern As­so­ci­a­tion of Col­leges and Schools and so forth — to make that part of ac­cred­i­ta­tion,” he said. “It would just be a noose around the neck of Chris­tian schools.”

As an or­ga­ni­za­tion of broad­cast­ers, the NRB is con­cerned with how FCC guide­lines can be used to cen­sor or edit re­li­gious con­tent seen as an­ti­thet­i­cal to fed­eral guide­lines, par­tic­u­larly on the top­ics of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and Is­lam.

“In the name of pub­lic stan­dards, the FCC has the au­thor­ity to edit con­tent and to say, ‘This is ac­cept­able and this is ver­boten,’” Mr. John­son said. “We know the ‘new sex­u­al­ity’ was fed­eral pol­icy [un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion]. We know that, and so it seemed to be not too far of a leap for the FCC to say, ‘This is in­de­cent, this is hate speech, this is not in the com­mu­nity’s in­ter­est.’”

But the NRB is buoyed by what it views as the most con­ser­va­tive pres­i­den­tial Cab­i­net. “Per­son­nel is pol­icy,” Mr. John­son said, prais­ing the ap­point­ments of Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy Devos and FCC Chair­man Ajit Pai.

“There’s cer­tainly a mood that the pres­i­dent gives to things, and the mood of Obama was in the di­rec­tion of censorship. And the mood of Pres­i­dent Trump — with the ex­ec­u­tive or­der he did last month — is to say, we’re not go­ing to per­se­cute Chris­tians, dis­crim­i­nate against Chris­tians and treat them as sec­ond-class cit­i­zens,” Mr. John­son said.

“So he pretty much said, when it comes to the John­son Amend­ment, ‘I’m in­struct­ing the IRS to not go af­ter folks for vi­o­lat­ing the John­son Amend­ment.’ We want to see that over­turned in the Congress.”

John­son

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