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Endangered Speeches

Government should not be in the business of regulating public discourse—whether religious or political.
One of the delights of pastoring New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., is that our campus is situated in the shadow of the United States Air Force Academy. The academy draws thousands of America's sharpest young men and women, and New Life gets the benefit of a large number of these cadets attending our services.

Recently, an academy alum-turned-civilian-lawyer filed a lawsuit against the branch of service that funded his and his two sons' educations. Alleging that the academy's religious climate violated his sons' First Amendment right to religious freedom, Michael Weinstein is seeking a permanent injunction prohibiting Air Force personnel from persuading others of anything religious while on duty.

The lawsuit's premise is absurd: we entrust these people with the world's most advanced weaponry and assign them to analyze sensitive geopolitical issues, but we can't trust them to discuss religion without government protection? The implications of the suit are alarming for the church in America, as it would establish a precedent for the federal government to moderate religious discourse.

Two miles south of our church campus is Focus on the Family. Last week, a liberal political group publicly called for a government investigation of Focus' political involvement. Their claim? As a non profit organization, a privately funded family-values advocacy organization should not be involved in public discourse.

A few miles west of Focus on the Family is the Flying W Ranch, a top tourist attraction, featuring authentic Western food and entertainment. The Flying W Wranglers, the outfit's critically acclaimed music group, has recently come under such pressure for its gospel music that the organization sent three band members packing.

These secular critics want to limit the expression of people whose ideas are anathema to them. These three situations in our city point to a rising cultural resistance to evangelicalism in America. A small but vocal minority is duping the rest of the country into thinking that free religious discourse violates our national charter.

There are two strands of this thinking. The first is that religious people and institutions ought to be regulated in their participation in public discussion. Under this logic, having any faith conviction makes a person dangerous.

Second is that businesses need to restrain from religious expression, lest any differently believing person be offended by the reminder that a majority of Americans believe one particular way. Under this logic, it is egregious that national expression would reflect national tradition.

Of course, these sentiments are always cloaked in outrage at any establishment of a state religion. But that argument is a straw man: no one on any side is advocating that America abolish the Establishment Clause and make Christianity the official state religion.

Opponents of religious organizations' political speech are quick to point to the IRS regulations governing the political activity of a non profit organization. But there is nothing in the IRS rule that is constitutionally mandated. In fact, it didn't even come into being until the 1950s, when Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson inserted language into the IRS tax code that prevented 501(c)(3) organizations from speaking against political candidates. Since then, this IRS gag order has erroneously been used to limit the political speech of religious non profits.

The IRS rules are part of civil law, and we must submit to them. But, we do not have to pretend they are right, nor do we have to act as if they cannot be changed. The gag order has infringed on Americans' most basic and sacred rights, and that intrusion has given license for anti-freedom zealots to attempt to trample the responsibilities of religious organizations.

As evangelical leaders, we should be the staunchest defenders of freedom. Someone needs to do the ACLU's job for them, since they have abdicated their role as First Amendment protectors in favor of hyper-liberal activism.

Who better to defend civil liberty than we? After all, "It was for freedom that Christ has set us free." Simply put: government should not be in the business of regulating speech—religious or political.

Ted Haggard pastors New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the author of many books and is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

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