Sermons are protected free speech under the first amendment


Our editor Nick has once again come up with a politically charged question which he wants us non-political pastors to solve or at least address.  As with the last Roundtable question about private school funding, I plead a lack of knowledge to answer the question to his satisfaction. That said, I have some thoughts based on a number of years of personal observation and a lot of reading of the U.S. Constitution and various court rulings.

At the start, let me offer that Trinity Anglican Church has both liberals and conservatives as members. We come from a wide variety of Christian faiths – Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Church of Christ, and a Messianic Jew. We welcome all regardless of their sexual orientation, number of tattoos, skin color, age, or whatever bad things they might have done in their past. We’re all sinners in need of God’s grace and healing. None of us is living our life the way God intends for us.  

I have no doubt some members know my political leanings but that’s based on personal conversations, not my sermons. I try to not bring politics to the pulpit. I’ve never told people how to vote – only to exercise their rights by voting.

That said, let’s address the elephant in the room.  For all my adult years, a number of churches have openly endorsed and urged their members to support certain candidates. They have allowed candidates to give political speeches (ahem, preach sermons) during church services and provided transportation to the polls for members. They invite the media to cover their speeches/sermons as if it were a political rally. I have never heard of any threat from the U.S. Government to go after their IRS tax-exempt status.

One threat to religious freedom did happen in Houston a couple of years ago.  The mayor of Houston subpoenaed sermons of various pastors whose political background differed from hers. Why was this unprecedented and dangerous legal action taken? Because many Houston pastors opposed the HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance). Only through a citizens’ petition and overturning of her demands were the sermons protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution. According to Snopes, “on May 28, 2014, Houston Mayor Annise Parker signed the controversial Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) into law.

“On August 7, 2014, HERO was placed on hold after opponents of the ordinance filed suit against the city with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group focused largely on opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. The following month city attorneys subpoenaed sermons given by local pastors who oppose the law and are tied to the conservative Christian activists who have sued the city.

“For the churches, the issue of whether those subpoenaed documents could call their tax-exempt status into question also is at stake. Legal and political science experts said it is a politically fraught issue that governments generally have trod carefully, or avoided altogether. Tax-exempt churches cannot use the pulpit to promote a specific candidate, but can use it as forum to discuss policy, such as the city’s equal rights ordinance, Southern Methodist University political science Professor Matthew Wilson said.”

So, as political retribution and payback to punish pastors who dared oppose her pet law, she illegally subpoenaed sermons that, as far as I know, have always been protected speech under the First Amendment.

This is where the danger lies. Not for a pastor or a church getting too political but for politicians and courts unfairly and inconsistently interpreting the First Amendment. If no one (read: Government) is going to go after the churches that blatantly endorse and promote certain political candidates of one party, then the Government can hardly go after pastors who take a Biblical position when Government passes a law or proposes an action that Christians in good conscience cannot support.  

The slippery slope almost got pastors and churches in Houston. We avoided the heavy and authoritarian hand of the Totalitarian State in that case, but we must maintain our vigilance if freedom of religion is to mean anything.

Rev. Dale L. Chrisman is a Rector at Trinity Anglican Church in Lago Vista.