The governor of New York has signed into state law the federal statue known as the Johnson Amendment – and religious freedom advocates are worried it could be used to silence pastors.
The Johnson Amendment has been on the federal books since 1954 when then Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-Texas) sponsored it. It says that non-profits – including churches – cannot endorse political candidates. Critics say it is too vague but it's has never been enforced at the federal level or challenged in courts.
American Family Association of New York director Frank Russo says while the New York state legal system is far more liberal – and activist – he remains hopeful legal challenges could negate the efforts of his state's legislators to push this through.
"Right now, New York is headed by a very liberal governor and very liberal state senate and state assembly, so I don't know what's going to happen," he admits. "But if they try to prevent freedom of speech, to prevent people who are religious leaders or leaders of religious organizations from addressing key moral issues, then they're going to lose when that gets appealed to the federal courts."
When he signed the legislation (S.4347/A.623) last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo laid the blame at the feet of the current administration in Washington, DC.
"For too long we have listened to the Trump administration threaten to remove common sense protections prohibiting tax-exempt organizations from engaging in inappropriate political activities," Cuomo stated. "New Yorkers have a right to free and fair elections, and this law will further protect our democracy from unjustified interferences once and for all."
But Russo argues that churches in the Empire State must be allowed to speak out on moral issues of the day – and specifically to call out politicians who flout biblical principles.
"People who are involved with nonprofit organizations that deal with key moral issues – like abortion or gay marriage – and they happen to mention [by name] that [they disagree with] such-and-such a candidate [because] … he's for gay marriage or he's for the right to abortion – I see no problem with that," says the family advocate.
Russo is hoping state prosecutors see it the same way.