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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 • Faith Now • Mitt Romney • Politics

soundoff (1,124 Responses)
  1. ME

    Black churches have been doing this for years.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Ambrogino

      Great, Stand up and use your bully pultpit to affect the election, then when the IRS revokes you tax exempt status we will have additional tax revenue.
      or Finally, churches are putting their money where there mouth is...

      October 5, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  2. Tony

    There is a phrase I heard once: "Why would the same God who endowed us with logic and reason expect us to forgo their use?"

    It's your vote, do what you think is best.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  3. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    Anyone interested in this topic might want to look at a docvment prepared by the Pew Forum.

    Preaching Politics From the Pulpit
    2012 Guide to IRS Rules on Political Activity by Religious Organizations

    http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Issues/Church-State_Law/PF_politics%20and%20the%20pulpit%202012.pdf

    In it, Section 4 addresses this question directly.

    4. Doesn’t the First Amendment to the U.S. Const'tution protect the right of religious organizations to engage in political activity?
    The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...” Although the Internal Revenue Code prohibition against political campaign intervention may burden the exercise of religion to the extent that a religious organization must choose between the receipt of the benefits of tax exemption and intervention in a political campaign, not every burden on religious exercise is const'tutionally prohibited.

    To date, courts have been unsympathetic to First Amendment challenges to the political campaign intervention prohibition. In the most prominent ruling on this prohibition, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld in 2000 the const’tutionality of the political campaign intervention prohibition as applied to a church, concluding that the prohibition did not violate either the
    Establishment Clause or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

    More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2012 declined to hear a challenge to the const’tutionality of the prohibition. In this case, the IRS imposed an excise tax on Catholic Answers, a religious nonprofit organization that is exempt from federal income taxes under section 501(c)(3). In 2004, after the organization published a voter guide on its website as well as a series of newsletters arguing that Sen. John Kerry (then the presumptive Democratic candidate for president) should not receive Communion in Roman Catholic churches, the IRS determined that the organization had engaged in improper electioneering. The organization sued for refund of the excise tax and challenged the const’tutionality of the restrictions on campaign activity. The IRS then refunded the tax, but the organization continued its legal challenge and sought to have the restriction declared unconst’tutional. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that the lawsuit was moot because the tax had been refunded and declined to consider the const’tutional challenge. Catholic Answers sought review of that decision in the Supreme Court, but the high court declined to review the decision.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • ME II

      Good info, thanks.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Precedent in other case history is not favorable to the position being taken by these ministers:

      For the BRANCH MINISTRIES v. ROSSOTTI CASE where the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., had their case dismissed, see page 5 of:

      http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Issues/Church-State_Law/PF_politics%20and%20the%20pulpit%202012.pdf

      October 5, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  4. hawaiiguest

    ""We understand how marginalized we are becoming,” Johnson said."

    What a fucking moron! Hey Johnson if you ever read this, try being honest for once in your life you tool.

    "Oh we only have an entire political party pandering to us and about 80% of the population generally agree with us, and instead of our unconstitutional BULLSHIT being completely thrown out like it should (abortion issues, gay marriage, 10 commandments all over the fucking place), those fucking things are actually being CONSIDERED AND IN SOME PLACES ACCEPTED! But we can't explicitly lead our robotic sheep to the voting booths and choose for them! OH HOW MARGINALIZED WE ARE!"

    Fucking moronic piece of shit.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • rdeleys

      I couldn't have said it better!

      October 5, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Robert Scot

      Do you feel the same way about Rev. Jackson, Sharpton ect?

      October 5, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Yes!

      October 5, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      If a Reverend, Paster, Preacher, Father, Priest, whatever the fuck you want to call them is representing a specific church, then they need to follow the rules! Now, I don't know is Sharpton or Jackson are still actively preaching from the pulpit, but if they are then they need to knock off the political shit.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @Robert Scot

      Out of curiosity, what answer were you expecting?

      October 5, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  5. Linden Atrocity

    I'm sorry, but abortion, and gay marriage are NOT specifically religious issues. They are social issues. Religion made it their issue.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Linden Atrocity

      Oh, not to mention Christianity has religious freedom. They can practice in their churches, go out into the streets and shove it down other peoples throats by buying billboards, making signs or just blabbing their heads off. So please tell me about religious freedom.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • ME

      Actually, I think it is the people who are in favor of those things who have characterized it as a religious issue to try to marginalize the people who are against it.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Visitor

      ME, how many anti abortion protests are not religious in nature, or have a bunch of people praying? I submit NONE.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Linden Atrocity

      IF that is the case, why would a Pastor, feel the need to speak out against it? Why not just the person? What about the base of the whole Republican party that most religious zealouts subscribe to? I'd say they are pretty guilty of turning it into a religious issue.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Manuel J.

      Actually, Gays pushed the marriage issue to the point religious organizations had no choice but to fight back.

      As for abortion, it is wrong. Yes, a woman has ownership of her body. To this I say either keep your legs shut and quit asking me to pay for your pills OR have your significant other get a vasectomy.

      In short... QUIT ASKING ME TO PAY FOR YOUR IRRESPONSIBILITY!!!!!!!!

      October 5, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "Actually, Gays pushed the marriage issue to the point religious organizations had no choice but to fight back. "

      what nonsense, what total and utter nonsense.
      Contrary to popular belief religion is not the owner of 'marriage', not even close. Religious organizations are telling other people that they cannot live their lives how they want to live their lives because they dont agree with it, and instead they need to keep their personal beliefs personal.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  6. Mark

    No representation without taxation.
    The whole religious exemption is a farce.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Religion is Not Heathly for children or ANY living things

      Absolutely!

      October 5, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  7. KC

    Send them all a tax bill and a bill for back taxes to the churches founding. then they can do what ever they want.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Religion is Not Heathly for children or ANY living things

      That is a PERFECT SOLUTION! I eagerly endorse that plan!...

      October 5, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  8. james

    very easy solution...preachers teach what the Bible says and then share how the representatives have voted. Then you tell your people to choose who is most Biblical. It will be pretty clear and you don't have to worry about any law or getting the liberals mad.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Visitor

      It is very clear. Jesus was a pacifist liberal.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • james

      You make me laugh.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Visitor

      I am glad I do. You are now invited to read the New Testament. If I can do it, so can you.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Boisepoet

      Then they can't vote for Romney as he is an apostate in Christian religions. He doesn't believe that Christ died on the cross, rose and ascended to heaven. He believes he skipped on over the pond and continued to preach a whole 'nother gospel to the light skinned native Americans.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "james – You make me laugh."

      james is a fan of cain....'am i my brother's keeper?'

      October 5, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  9. mike

    Christianity being marginalized? I completely agree. When's the last time anyone drove more than 300 feet down any street in any city in America and ran into a church? We must protect at all costs those poor marginalized religious people who make up over 80% of our population. As for telling people how to vote, well, these churches have long been the refuge of people that can't think for themselves, so why would it stop at governance? That being said, people that desire to live in a theocracy should move to Iran.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  10. Visitor

    How about the Pastor preach about the similarities between Evangelical Christianity and Mormonism? I think that would be appropriate yes? Discuss the three levels of heaven, and where non Mormons get to go.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  11. R

    Another pastor that doesn't know how to read the bible. Jesus was a champion for social justice. That was his overriding theme.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • james

      Yes, social justice through Christian charity and individual choice, not through governmental mandate. Can you tell me what limits the Bible gives for what the responsibilities of the civil government are?

      October 5, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • localdeli

      Well, James, we the people are the government and how are taxes are spent is our mandate. What kind of society would attack its most vulnerable populations rather than assist them collectively? And Mr. Romney would do well to remember that even if 47% of the people do depend on the government, HE and those of his ilk depend on the people 100%.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Visitor

      James, Jesus was a Jew.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  12. Sally Bow

    Either take the exemption and don't meddle in politics, or excercise your 1st amendment rights, but not on my dime (by not paying taxes). You can't have it both ways!

    October 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  13. JWN in SC

    All churches should pay taxes no matter what they preach.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  14. eleanor fitzgerald

    How do these pastors differ from religious fanatics like the Taliban who use religion as a means to control people?. The next step after telling people how to vote (they may tell you it is in God's name) is to urge violence against those whose do not hold to their beliefs. That is one reason why we must have separation of church and state. Take away their tax benefits. They cannot have it both ways. A number of their followers will probably vote in line with what their religious beliefs are. But, hopefully, they will examine their own consciences, and some wisdom will be involved in how they vote and they do not march lock step to the ballot box..

    October 5, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Aces Full

      Why are Unions tax exempt but allowed to say anything political they want to and donate to any political campaign? The left want's it both ways for themselves.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • localdeli

      Well, not all churches are engaged in overt political campaigning and should receive tax exemptions along with non-profit organizations. However, I agree that the "Give us Barabbas!" preachers and their churches should be taxed.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  15. palusko996769

    After the pastor asks "how can you vote for Obama" – is there going to be a debate, or is it going to end there, as a rhetorical question? Is he also going to tell his sheep that Romney used to be pro-choice just a few years ago?
    The problem is, if this goes to court and the church wins, it will prove their point. If they lose, it will prove another point, and that is, that there is a war on Christianity. Win-win situation for the churches.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Mike

      Your war on Christianity is no different than a "war" on bullying.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • palusko996769

      "my" war? What are you talking about Mike? I'm just saying, that churches will be quick to draw that conclusion and present it as a fact, if the case goes to court and they lose. And if they win, they will present it as a fact, that they indeed have a right to mix religion and government.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  16. localdeli

    Who goes to church to hear a politically charged sermon? If I were alive during the time of Christ, I'd go out to see a prophet, a man who could give sight to the blind, raise the dead and give me some good news, but I'd be damned if I'd go out to hear who among the Sanhedrin should be the next high priest, even if it were Nicodemus.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  17. Kona

    Indeed, tax the churches!

    October 5, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Chris

      I agree. They can get into it all they want as long as they pay taxes like the rest of us

      October 5, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  18. Doug

    Any church that gets involved in any political process should lose their exempt status... The Mormon church spent millions in California fighting gay marriage, I don't understand why they didn't lose their exemption then,,, Churches just stomp on the laws and get away with it.. The most evil force on this planet is religion..

    October 5, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Little Cezar

      " I don't understand why they didn't lose their exemption then,,," Like you said, they have millions to spend.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Maggie Magwire

      I totally agree with you Doug.take their tax exemptions away once and for all.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Greg

      Churches are only banned from endorsing specific candidates. 401c3 doesn't say anything about propositions.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Gassan

      hi Ian,We (the guys) meet on Wednesday nite over some adult beverage & dnneir over in West Seattle.The place is called Elliott Bay Brewery & Pub4720 California Avenue SouthwestSeattle, WA 98116-4413If you care to join us..you are welcome to. My # 253-617-4626.We meet at about 4pm. Let me know if you can make it & I will give a heads up forthe others so that you can meet them as well. Al

      November 8, 2012 at 5:14 am |
  19. squosh1110

    Churches have no justification for being tax exempt. A church is a business, I know that sounds bad, but it's true.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  20. Rebecca

    No one is taking away anyone's right to free speech. You can say whatever it is that your heart desires on the pulpit. You can endorse Donald Trump if it makes you happy. You just have to pay taxes like everyone else. Simple.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Rebecca

      Well, unfortunately, it appears that the christians want free speech...and... tax exempt status.

      Hopefully, the IRS will start to enforce the code.

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 2:12 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.