Trump backs Hice plan to boost speech by churches

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Washington, February 4, 2017 | comments

By David Clemons
February 4, 2017

Before he was Rep. Jody Hice, he was the Rev. Jody Hice.

The man who went on to become Walton County’s first congressman made waves as a pastor by challenging the federal rules against introducing politics at the pulpit.

While a pastor in Bethlehem in 2008, Hice asked his congregation to support Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, in the presidential race against then-Sen. Barack Obama.

That put the church’s tax-exempt status at risk under the Johnson Amendment, a rule introduced by former President Lyndon B. Johnson while the Texas Democrat was a congressman.

The 1954 law endangers the tax-exempt status of churches who intervene on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate for public office.

Hice later took similar measures when he was the pastor of The Summit in Loganville. He was elected to Congress in 2014.

Hice and colleague Steve Scalise, R-La., introduced the Free Speech Fairness Act on Wednesday. It would change the tax code to carve out free-speech exemptions for churches, nonprofit organizations and educational institutions if they are part of its regular activities, and if expenditures related to the free-speech activities are nominal.

Their efforts got a big boost Thursday when President Donald Trump said he would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment.

“Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us,” Trump told religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast, in remarks reported by The New York Times.

Hice agreed it’s time for the Johnson Amendment to go.

“Our nation was built on the foundation that freedom of speech and freedom of religion are unalienable rights,” he said. “For too long, the IRS has used the Johnson Amendment to silence and threaten religious institutions and charitable entities.

“As a minister who has experienced intimidation from the IRS firsthand, I know just how important it is to ensure that our churches and nonprofit organizations are allowed the same fundamental rights as every citizen of this great nation. I’m proud that our legislation accomplishes that, because America is stronger and better when all of our citizens are free to express their convictions.”

Hice said he looked forward to working with Trump on repeal efforts.

James Lankford, R-Okla., introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

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