During the Q&A, a participant asked Lankford about the current state of religious liberty debate in the U.S. Senate. Lankford spoke with great clarity to that point, bringing in discussion about the Johnson Amendment—which, of course, was in the news last week when President Trump announced an Executive Order that began work on the issue.
It will take action from the Senate—not simply an Executive Order from the Oval Office—to end this provision of the tax code.
To that end, listen to Sen. Lankford on this subject—and read the transcript that follows.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla: We work a lot on religious liberty. Religious liberty is a major passion of our staff. I have a team member that is a Liberty Law School graduate, incredibly sharp and is very active in this area with all of us.
Let me give you a couple of things. One is there are split decisions from the Supreme Court right now. You take the Hobby Lobby decision where it says individuals should be able to live their faith in how they choose to live their faith and not be restricted based on the place they work or how they work. You take that same Court and other decisions going exactly the opposite direction. The gay marriage decision for instance. By the way Justice Kennedy had two opposing opinions of himself a year and a half apart, in his own opinions based around the issue of religious liberty.
When I bring up religious liberty in the Senate right now, for instance I added in a requirement that every time we do trade agreements with any country in the world, for instance Vietnam, when we do trade agreements we should bring up human rights and religious liberty in that context. That’s a leverage point for us to say, you want to do trade with the United States. We value the opportunity for every person to live their faith as they choose to. If you’re not willing to do that, we want to restrict trade to you. It’s a leverage point. I added that in.
I had members of the Senate that came and caught me and said, listen is this amendment secretly anti-gay because you’re promoting religious liberty? Religious liberty and gay rights have now been put in opposition with each other in the culture that we live in. That is unfair dichotomy. But that is part of what we’re living in right now.
There’s also a battle Constitutionally between the Establishment Clause and between Free Exercise. To say is this establishment of religion or is this free exercise of religion? I lean pretty hard on free exercise. If this is an individual that’s an individual that can choose to have no faith or practice their faith. But not just have a faith, live their faith.
I often speak to people that we do not have the freedom of religion or the freedom of worship. This is a big catch for me. I have all kinds of folks say we have freedom of worship. We do not have freedom of worship in America. We have the free exercise of religion. Freedom of worship means if you come into this building you can worship how you want. Free exercise of religion says I can live my faith wherever and however I want. That’s a very different protection.
In that context, I met with Neil Gorsuch two weeks ago in my office and we had a long conversation. Part of that conversation was about faith. He has been very strong on his opinions of faith and has been very clear. He was one of the judges on the 10th Circuit dealing with the Hobby Lobby case for instance. He has been a person that’s leaned pretty heavily on the free exercise. In fact his opinion is government doesn’t have a role to step in to tell someone that’s their religious belief. That individual can live out their faith and needs to have the opportunity to be able to do it. This is one of the great arguments of our day though.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve interviewed judges that will be in the western district of Oklahoma as our federal judges there because we have a couple of openings and that’s one of the issues I bring up to them. Because to me it’s a bell weather issue about privacy, about so many other issues. If I know where you stand on the free exercise of religion, I can guess pretty much where you stand on a lot of other issues because of those basic protections that are there.
One quick comment. I know we got to move from here. I’m working on something called the Johnson Amendment right now. Now President Trump has talked about this a lot, but this has been an issue for a long time. LBJ, when he was a Senator, snuck in in the 1950s a section of the tax code, telling non-profits that they could not get involved in electioneering. That’s never been defined by the IRS. Never. It just hangs out there.
So for instance, if there’s a state question that deals with a moral issue on the ballot, can your church talk about it? It’s a moral issue. It’s a biblical issue. The IRS has never clarified that. It’s a chilling of speech because some churches will say we’re not going to take the risk to threaten our non-profit status. Other churches won’t. It is the only area in our law right now that tells a group of people, you don’t have freedom of speech if you’re in a non-profit. If you’re in a for profit, you have freedom of speech. If you’re unemployed you have freedom of speech. If you receive a government grant or government subsidies, you have freedom of speech. But if you work for a church or a non-profit, you don’t.
That needs to be challenged. That’s one of the areas that we’re pushing on to be able to get resolution. I’m not talking about finances. No one should be able to run a political campaign through a church. That’s absurd. That’s already illegal, should remain illegal, but I’m talking about the ability for a pastor to be able to speak without worrying that there’s an IRS agent in the back monitoring their speech. That’s not the role of the IRS and a pastor just like a business owner or just like an unemployed person or a college student shouldn’t have the government monitoring their speech. We hope to be able to get that fixed this year, finally.
(Video courtesy of the Missouri Baptist Convention)
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