Adopted in 1791, the purpose of the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, was to protect the liberties of individual citizens in America from the power of the newly formed federal government. The First Amendment was considered the cornerstone of the other nine.
Fast forward to 1954. Then Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson proposed a change to the U.S. Tax Code that would strip charitable organizations such as churches of their tax-exempt status if they endorsed or opposed any political candidate for public office. Johnson was taking some heat from these quarters in a closely contested race for reelection. Since the enactment of the Johnson Amendment the IRS has broadened its application to any endorsement or opposition to any issue in the political arena such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
This is what prompted Houston mayor Annise Parker, an avowed lesbian, to subpoena the sermons of area pastors who supported a petition to overturn the recently adopted Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). Nicknamed the “bathroom ordinance” Houston pastors and parents fear the ordinance permits anyone to use the male or female restroom of their choice. What parent would not be concerned if a forty-year-old male transvestite followed their ten-year-old daughter into a public restroom? In a tweet Parker initially defended the subpoenas by applying the principle of the Johnson Amendment, “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game. Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?-A.”
Houston, we have a problem. The first words of the First Amendment read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” I think it is significant that when our founding fathers sought to protect individual freedoms the first freedom they secured was the freedom of religion. I think the HERO ordinance and Johnson Amendment are on a collision course with the Constitution.
I do not think it is wise to support any political candidate for public office, so I don’t as a matter of principle. But there are a number of political issues that overlap into biblical territory. And when it comes to public issues of morality, justice and the welfare of society, as pastors we are conscience bound to follow the example of Peter and the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men,” Acts 5:29.
I will continue to exercise my right to address those issues of scriptural significance granted me by the First Amendment to the Constitution with little regard for the Johnson Amendment. No one needs to subpoena my sermons; they are delivered publicly every Sunday morning to those in attendance. Anyone who wants a transcript can come and write down everything they hear.