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Pastors prepare to take on IRS over political endorsement ban
On Sunday, 1,400 pastors across the country will break the law and talk politics from the pulpit.
October 5th, 2012
11:50 AM ET

Pastors prepare to take on IRS over political endorsement ban

By Dan Merica, CNN

When Ron Johnson takes take his pulpit on Sunday, he will willfully break the law. After presenting his views on President Barack Obama’s handling of religious issues –- like abortion, gay marriage, and religious freedom - Johnson will ask his congregation a question.

“In light of what I have presented,” Johnson says he will say, “How can you go into that election booth and vote for Barack Obama as president of the United States?”

What Johnson plans to do is in violation of the IRS’ so-called Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that has made it illegal for churches that receive tax exempt status from the federal government to intervene in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

Why is Johnson so brazenly violating that law this Sunday? Strength in numbers: He will be joined by at least 1,400 others pastors across the United States.

Johnson’s sermon is part of a wider effort by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal organization that since 2008 has organized Pulpit Freedom Sunday, when they encourage and pledge to help pastors who willfully violate the Johnson Amendment by endorsing from the pulpit.

The movement is growing – and quickly. Pulpit Freedom Sunday had 33 churches participating in 2008, and 539 last year.

The goal: Force the IRS to come down on these churches so that the Alliance Defending Freedom, whose network includes 2,200 attorneys, can test the Johnson Amendment’s constitutionality.

“The IRS has the ability and the authority to regulate their sermons. We are giving them the opportunity to do that and if they challenge that, we will challenge that in court,” said Eric Stanley, Alliance Defending Freedom's senior legal counsel. “It is all about creating a test case to find the Johnson amendment as unconstitutional.”

With 31 days until Americans elect their next president, what is said at this year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday could hold more sway than in previous years.

“I do think that the fact that it is an election year does make a difference,” Stanley said. “It is very relevant right now. Pastors who participate are speaking to something facing their congregation right at this moment.”

Johnson, who leads an evangelical church in Crown Point, Indiana, said he will not explicitly endorse Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, but will vehemently challenge President Barack Obama, including calling the president’s policies “un-American.”

“As a pastor, I am going to tell it like I see it and I am going to communicate from the word of God,” Johnson said. “I hope that on Election Day, I hope that I have influenced people to protect their conscience.”

Critics charge that the movement is a Republican front dressed up as an exercise in religious freedom. When CNN asked to be put in touch with a church that plans to endorse the president, representatives from the organization said they don’t screen who the churches plan to endorse.

The two pastors that the Alliance Defending Freedom put CNN in touch with plan to either criticize the president or endorse Romney.

“I think there is a possibility that in some of these mega-churches, a pastor's saying it is OK to vote for Mitt Romney … could increase voter turnout,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “The ADF wants to elect the next president. They want to elect Mitt Romney.”

So far, the effort has received little to no response from the IRS.

After the sermons are delivered on Sunday, pastors participating in the Pulpit Freedom event are encouraged to send videos of their remarks to the nation’s tax collection agency. According to Stanley, the majority of the messages in past years have gone unnoticed and only a handful of pastors receive letters, some of which threaten to revoke the churches tax exempt status.

This trend of what some IRS watchdogs call nonenforcement has emboldened pastors and the Alliance Defending Freedom. According to pastors who have participated in the past, the fact that the IRS rarely if ever comes down on the churches emboldens them to keep endorsing.

Stanley and the Alliance Defending Freedom theorize that the IRS doesn’t want to be challenged in court and that the agency may be disorganized.

The IRS did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Lynn and Americans United say that bureaucratic uncertainty as to what level of IRS official can initiate an investigation leads to lack of enforcement.

In the past, the IRS has investigated churches that they suspected of violating the Johnson Amendment.

Four days before the presidential election in 1992, the Landmark Church in Binghamton, New York, ran a full-page ad in USA Today that said, "Christians Beware," and that was followed by a list of Clinton's positions on homosexuality, abortion and the distribution of condoms. At the bottom, the church asked for donations to help pay for the ad.

According to Lynn, Americans United filed a complaint, and in 1995 the church lost its tax-exempt status.

Landmark Church Pastor Dan Little took the IRS to court, arguing that the agency was violating the church's First Amendment rights and that the agency was only able to revoke the tax-exempt status of a "religious organization," not an actual church.

Both a federal judge and an appeals court rejected those arguments.

When asked about people who question whether a pastor should be allowed to endorse from the pulpit, Johnson, the Indiana pastor, laughs.

“Pastors understand how the so called separation of church and state, as it is currently understood. We understand how marginalized we are becoming,” Johnson said. “We are supposed to be part of the community discussion about issues that matter.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: 2012 Election • Barack Obama • Church • Mitt Romney • Politics

soundoff (1,124 Responses)
  1. California Gary

    Aside from the tax exempt issue, I wonder how the church pastors can in good conscience then recommend support for a candidate and a party that shows such disdain for the poor and less fortunate among us.......it seems to me that the GOP is not following the teachings of the church either........where am I wrong in this?

    October 5, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Wraith

      Hi Gary,
      My best guess would be to establish a cycle of dependency. The more poor and needy, the more the churches can, "help," the poor and needy, thereby pushing their indoctrination to the less educated.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • California Gary

      Interesting theory wraith.......maybe there is a method to their madness after all.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Saboth

      There's an older guy at work that says he only votes on the candidate that agrees with his stance on abortion. So sad.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • DMS

      Actually, most of this is in the Bible. It does talk about the masses being misled. Look at what we have going on now, a 'religious party' that votes against the poor, the sick, the disabled. Is all about greed and personal wealth. Accuses anyone who doesn't agree with them as being evil, demonic or unpatriotic. And are now supporting a candidate that is as Anti-Christian as you can get. Everywhere you look the comments (on any web area) you see are deception and a snake, so many people see it, they just don't fully understand it. Also, the identification system being promoted by this candidate is also discussed in great detail in the Bible. There are just as many Christians that see this and aren't going along with it.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  2. Tim

    Maybe this is one of Romney's loop holes he is going to terminate. Let the religious nuts pick up the tab to preach politics.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • California Gary

      Could be Tim.......who knows what loop holes he's talking about. One thing we do know......Big Bird needs to go. I wonder if the church has taken a position on Big Bird........they must have, since Romney elevated the issue to a national presidential debate. Like Obama said at a rally yesterday: "Thank goodness someone is finally cracking down on Big Bird!" I, for one, can't wait for the SNL skit on this.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • VB Reader

      One of the reasons the government allows tax exemptions for churches is that they perfrom needed functions such as feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing those in need. I am a member of a small church and on many occasions, people have walked in and made their needs known to us. We we have given them money so they can pay fo: gas for their car, food for their family, rent, medicines, etc. That is a function the government will have to perform if churches stop doing it. In acknowledgement of that, the government has allowed deductions to be tax exempt.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  3. MashaSobaka

    Step 2: The IRS needs to grow a spine and start enforcing the law. I hope they do, and I hope these zealots enjoy their tax bill.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  4. WASP

    i like where this is going. churches pay taxes, thus fewer preachers driving mecedes in the bronx. lmfao

    October 5, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  5. Noah Z

    If they are going to do that then it's time to strip them of being Tax Exempt!!

    October 5, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  6. Joe D.

    What's truly sad is many of their members will defend this. Rather than stand behind the principles of this nation which was formed partly as a result of escaping religious persecution due to the melding of church and state, they would rather have another channel to reinforce their rigid, impractical political views. They watch Fox News throughout the week and now they want their pastor to buttress their delusions on the weekends. While the hypocrites in question stand and sing praises to showcase their sanctimonious piety to their neighbors, they will demonize and slander for political gain. I have nothing about religion, but let's get real here. There are those who are trying to use mold a different morality as a tool to gain power. Men of faith should also be proud to stand up for the preservation of our democracy.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  7. justuandme

    Asking snce I do not know really. So lets say a church violated ithe Johnson Law, does this law takes into effect permanently? Like what happens when a new pastor comes in who does not share the same opinion as teh previous pastor can you lift the penalty or is it there forever?

    October 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  8. Brenda Schwab

    Thank God for all the pastors that are willing to stand up for God and Country. Christians should have the same rights as any other person. Why can't they endorse candidates. Everyone else including those that are not citizens of the US are protected and can voice their opinion. What is happening to our country and why would any Christian vote for Obama. Did you hear him mention God at all during the debate? I didn't.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Good grief. Christians DO have the same rights, but these fundamentalist churches are asking for SPECIAL rights. Your post is nonsense.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • WASP

      @brenda: one phrase for you seperation of church and state. that's why ALL religion aren't allowed to back a member of office. we are a secular country, not a theocrasy like iran.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Portland tony

      They can say anything they want. Just not from the pulpit. OR lose their tax exempt status. And it's not God 's word. You can have 35 Baptist ministers who would vote for 35 different candidates if they could.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • mcklapp

      You say Christians should have the right to free speech. Do you feel the same about Jews, Hindus and Muslims? Do they have the same right you claim?
      If you have the right to politicize from the pulpit of a tax-exempt organization, why should I (or anyone else) subsidize that by paying taxes to maintain roads that your members use to drive to church? I shouldn't have to pay for you politicizing (especially if you pay no taxe).
      Of course I believe no church should be exept from taxes. As Jesus said:"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's"
      You are not the only ones with rights and they do not mean you can do whatever you want whenever and however you want. After all, that is why you oppose rights for all citizens.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Joe D.

      That is such ridiculous fake umbrage. Christians have every right as everyone else. They are not being persecuted. If a church wants to use the pulpit as a political weapon, they have the freedom to forfeit their tax-exempt status. They are not required to be tax-exempt to be a church. I think you need to read up on history and see what happens when we blur the lines between church and state, Once you open that box, it's virtually impossible to close it again. Let's keep faith and government separate for the sake of our nation. Ideology has no place in governing a country of diversity.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Brenda Schwab

      Yes... just break the law Brenda... *Onward Christian Soldiers*... The ends justify the means.

      What a moron.

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Donna96

      @ Brenda Schwab Get a grip Brenda, any religion has the right to endorse candidates. Christians have every right any other American has. They just don't have the right to do it on the taxpayers dime. If they want to preach politics with their religion they need to give up their tax exempt status. I would think that the churches who hate the government so much would not want any handouts from them anyway.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Sam

      WASP, the day you atheists stop lying about what Thomas Jefferson meant by separation of church and state in a personal letter drafted 40 or so years after the first amendment was in place, is the day a Christian is willing to listen to your lies. Don't hold your breath though.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "Sam – WASP, the day you atheists stop lying about what Thomas Jefferson meant by separation of church and state in a personal letter drafted 40 or so years after the first amendment was in place, is the day a Christian is willing to listen to your lies."

      Thing is Sam is that even the supreme court has said what they believe it means, and I doubt you would find they were atheists when they came to that conslusion.
      So either accept you are wrong or be called a liar yourself as to what it means.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @sam,

      what part of "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" don't you understand?

      You do understand that "establishment of religion" is the 18th century terminology for "state religion". It does mean that the government cannot inst'tutionalize any religion or religious belief in a civic context. What's wrong with expecting the opposite to be true as well?

      The secular nature of the US government is underlined in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli:

      "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

      October 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Saboth

      You aren't allowed to endorse candidates as a non-profit.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Ozzy

      Of course Obama didn't mention God during the debate...it was about THE ECONOMY. What place does God have in that conversation? None.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • skyduck

      Brenda- I bet you wish you had pursued that GED now. Christians CAN and DO have views. A Church can express their view as well, they just lose their Tax Exempt status. As a Christian, I try to only worship God in Church and not a politician.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  9. Beverly - NYC

    I go to church to hear the word of God, not who the Priest thinks I should vote for. Stay in your lane Rev. I can believe in God, pro-choice and Gay marriage without the slightest guilt, the God I believe in is not a narrow minded bigot. If I'm worng only he will jugde.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Sam

      Beverly, that god you speak of goes by the name of Satan.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Beverly-NYC

      Pretty well put.

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • justuandme

      @ Sam I believe that marriage is between a Male and a Female. It was the path I was shown and the way it is written in each respective religion holy books. It seems that this is where your disapprovment is aiming at. That said I would love any gay/lesbian couple equally as a hetro couple –Not sure if that makes sense to you or not. At the same time, if you believe in a God who teaches us to respect and honor each other regardless then you can't hate anyone. Which brings me to this point. I would not support any belief that shows bias to any gay/lesbian couple. There is a lot of contradictory in what I said but I am not sure how else to explain it. I hope you understand. Now from what you posted is just down right disrespectful and has no bearing to intelligent conversation.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Sam

      Beverly, trying picking up the bible and giving it a read. Does a body good instead of listening to the LIES of man. You don't know Jesus if you haven't read his book, the bible.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'You don't know Jesus if you haven't read his book, the bible."

      so what exactly did jesus say about gay marriage?

      October 5, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Jonathan

      @ Cedar:

      We know what he said about marriage: "In the beginning, God made them male and female. A man will leave his mother and father, and cleave to his wife, and they will become one flesh..."

      There is no room for interpretation there.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  10. JM

    I have no problem with people saying what they want to say. They just do not get to remain tax-exempt as they are clearly advocating a policy and political position, which should not be supported by public tax dollars. Tax exempt status revoked – feel free to say whatever you want.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • California Gary

      Right on the mark JM.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @JM & @California Gary

      Absolutely !

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • justuandme

      Count me in for support 😉

      October 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  11. David

    That is the point to the Johnson Law; if churches want to be tax exempt then they can't engage in politics. The separation of church and state goes both ways. Pastors and religious leaders have every right to speak their mind, but then they can no longer be tax exempt.

    I don't think churches should be exempt anyway, but that is another issue.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @David

      Well said... and agree !

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Gotaclue

      OK, but the same goes for labor Unions too. They're tax exempt under the same rules as curches. And they're politically neutral???! Duh! I think not. If one imust remian silent, then so should the other. But that would be too much to ask of mainstream America.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  12. Ting

    There are a lot of sheep that don't know how to cast their votes. Luckily there are shepherds to guide their way. Don't forget that when you vote, God is watching and he will smite you if you vote against your pastor's instructions.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • I don't THINK so

      God will smite me? Jeez, I hate getting smited. Smitten? Smitered? Whatever.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  13. Taxthemall

    Why should the churches get a free ride?
    Drive thru any poor rural area then take a look at the local church, the pastors house, and his car.
    Usually the Pastor is living large off of the sweat of his congregation.
    Now they want to tell the sheep how to vote.
    Time to rise up sheep!

    October 5, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • max_headroom

      Amen. We need to take away the tax exempt status of all these bogus religions. Then they can say what they want. And we will have a balanced budget.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  14. Portland tony

    The loss of tax exempt status would put the majority of religious organizations and schools out of business. This is a no brainer for the Supreme Court. Good news if you're an atheist. Bad news for all religions who preach politics from the pulpit.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Portland tony

      Germany has a tax law that states if you are a member of a church, you must pay an amount equal to 8% of your annual income tax to make up for the exempt status of churches!

      October 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  15. bckerr

    Get rid of the tax exemption status and make them pay the value of the land and building like every other "business", simple as that.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • TonyfromUS

      Completely agreed. Remove all tax-exempt status from "non" profit organizations, then there is no issue.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  16. Steve393

    Tax the church.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  17. Ozzy

    Hey, I'm an atheist and I'm all for this. Let's get rid of the Johnson law, allow Churches to endorse candidates, and along with it, let's remove Churches tax exempt status and let them actually contribute to the welfare of the country.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • justuandme

      I agree

      October 5, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Pastor son

      The how can we live? What about my baby mothers? My dad will have to insist that people pay their 10% so I can take care of my kids and if that happens people will stop coming to church and membership will decline and eventuall all churches will close in 20 yeras Atheism will set in and total destruction of America.

      My dad loves the tax exemption, it helps keep the members in church and money in his pocket.

      BURN IN HELL!!!!!!!!!!!! RON JOHNSON AND LEAVE DADDYS CHURCH OUT OF IT ( PASTOR SON)

      October 5, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Ozzy

      Then you raise the prices that people have to pay. If what you're selling has value (and make no mistake, you are selling something), then people will pay for it. If the money stops flowing and the church doors close, well, I guess it's time to find a new trade...

      October 5, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Scott Donovan

      Praying is for the weak and miss guided

      October 5, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  18. tallulah13

    These shameful individuals love their own perceived power more than they love the land that allows them to freely preach their own brand of religion. If they cannot respect the rule of law, then they should be punished just like any other criminal.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    October 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Michael

      Actually you are dead wrong. It has been proven that prayer does nothing in any way what so ever . The studies that showed such nonsense were lies and proven to be by many different parties. Also Atheist nations and nations that have denounced a state religion have proven to have less poverty , be more educated and have more donation by large numbers as well as less crime.
      That said all the lies about religions good are just that lies. Facts are facts. A study done in 2005 showed that people in religious homes and areas in the country had a higher rate of STD,Abortion , Suicide as well as less educated and more likely to hold lower wage jobs. What say you when you claim these things? Is that christian? No it is false and against the very religion you cling to dear life for.
      You cant prove any religion on any level. That is why they call it faith. Tax the religious organizations PERIOD. YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL! You are an American first!
      When you can prove there is actually a god then we can talk.It also says in the bible to pray quietly in a room with family or alone. But you will notice people like to skip that part. They also like to skip the support in the bible for many things that would be considered illegal in this nation. Yes ,I have read the bible many times and in many forms. God isn't the issue .Belief isn't Cultism in the form of religion is!

      October 5, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Scott Donovan

      Prayer changes nothing – its been proven!

      October 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Scott Donovan

      Ask the farmers in the bible belt, they prayed long and hard for rain. Look what it got them, more SUN.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  20. SAi

    Why are some people who so fervently defend individual liberty and freedom of thought are also so willing to give it up to priests and religious organization? It will appear that they do not actually believe in liberty, just that they want to choose who they want to give it up to. In the end, what is the difference between these people who gave up their freedom to think for themselves and those who gave it up to the government to think for them?

    October 5, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.