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October 8th, 2012
02:20 PM ET

Pastor heralds success of endorsing from the pulpit, challenging IRS

By Dan Merica, CNN

In a sermon that likely broke the law, Indiana pastor Ron Johnson told his 400 congregants Sunday that for those who believe in the Bible, the decision to vote against President Barack Obama “is a no-brainer.”

“For Christian people who believe the Bible is the inspired world of God, it is not rocket science,” Johnson told CNN after his sermon.

Johnson’s anti-Obama sermonizing likely violated the so-called Johnson Amendment, an Internal Revenue Service rule that forbids 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.”

But Johnson appears comfortable with defying the IRS. His sermon was part of a national campaign by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal organization that has organized Pulpit Freedom Sunday since 2008, encouraging pastors to flout the Johnson Amendment with political endorsements from the pulpit.

Alliance Defending Freedom said that more 1,500 other pastors across the United States participated Sunday. The goal: to force the IRS to come down on these churches so the organization, 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 Erik Stanley, Alliance Defending Freedom's senior legal counsel. “It is all about creating a test case to find the Johnson Amendment as unconstitutional.”

With less than a month until the presidential election, what was said at this year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday could hold more sway than in previous years.

Critics say the movement is a Republican front dressed up as an exercise in religious freedom, an allegation the event organizer rejects.

“The ADF wants to elect the next president. They want to elect Mitt Romney,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “This is not about some principle.”

Johnson denies that, noting on Sunday he did not endorse Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, but instead urged his congregation to vote against Obama, whose policies he called “un-American.”

He said the speech received a number of standing ovations.

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 whom the churches plan to endorse.

The Alliance Defending Freedom has ties to other conservative Christian groups such as the American Family Association and Focus on the Family.

“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,” Lynn said.

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

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

Many of the sermons from Sunday will be sent to the nation’s tax collection agency, a move that organizers hope will make it easy for the IRS to come down on the churches. 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 nonenforcement by the IRS has emboldened some pastors and the Alliance Defending Freedom, said Lynn of Americans United. According to pastors who have participated in the past, the fact the IRS rarely if ever comes down on these churches encourages 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.

But the lack of enforcement stems from bureaucratic uncertainty about what rank an IRS official must be to initiate an investigation, Lynn said.

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

Four days before the 1992 presidential election, the Landmark Church in Binghamton, New York, ran a full-page ad in USA Today that said, "Christians Beware," followed by a list of Bill 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 the church lost its tax-exempt status in 1995.

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

Both a U.S. District Court judge and a federal appeals court rejected those arguments.

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

“Pastors understand 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 • Christianity • Mitt Romney • Politics

soundoff (581 Responses)
  1. RayJacksonMS

    Tax all the cults, starting with these!

    October 8, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • John

      Maybe this is one of the loopholes Romney is not telling he will close to pay for his tax cuts.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • old ben

      well they should be taxed something if all they are doing is "growing themselves" and not follow the current guidelines. it would be better if all churches just got some break on tax proportional to their missions outlay (charitable outlay that is not associated with their or other religious organizations and for which nothing is expected in return).

      October 8, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Susie

      Including the secularist cults commonly known as public universities.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • Buzz 1976

      Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
  2. tom

    the same way judges decided the right to remain silent and all the other rights they gave criminals that were never there before they invented them

    October 8, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Delusional idiocy.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      How can anyone even figure out what tom the dumbazz typed?

      October 8, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • mama kindless

      What are you trying to say? My goodness.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Tom apparently needs to refamiliarize himself with

      SCOTUS Miranda v. Arizona (1966)

      Const'tution of the United States, Article III, Section 1. and Section 2.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • old ben

      Wow. "I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV" – I am amazed. I didn't know you spoke dumbazz.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @old ben,

      I must have picked it up hanging around here way too much! 😉

      October 8, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  3. Buzz1975

    Churches don't have "free speech" when it comes to politics because it is the LAW that binds them because they enjoy tax exempt status and gave up those rights. IF they want to endorse candidates and preach politics, and sponsor campaigns, let them GIVE UP their tax exempt status. Simple.

    October 8, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • Buzz 1976

      OK BUZZZZZZZZ Just makes you mad that someone exercises free speech? You ever read the first amendment?

      Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.

      It says NOTHING about taxes or tax exemption. The key words...NO LAW.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  4. Jason

    Get your sermons out of our politics and go back to talking about the bible like you're supposed to. And that goes for everybody, the black preachers and these guys who apparently don't mind to pay extra taxes.

    October 8, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  5. DougJ

    It's infuriating that these conservative, right wingers continue to do damage to the Christian faith. This man and his ilk do not represent the majority of Christians.

    October 8, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Welcome to the Brave New World of contemporary faux Christianity. Characterized by arrogance, condescension, and false victim-hood, it bears little to no resemblance to the ideals it purports to follow.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • Susie

      Actually the "rightwing" Christians are the ones who are actually following the teachings of the Bible while liberal "Christians" totally ignore the teachings of the Bible.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Absolutely false, Susie.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • Susie

      Good argument. LOL

      October 9, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      As Stephen says:

      "I've got to know what position my food has taken on all the issues. ... Whenever I go to Applebees I insist they only give me right wings. After all, you are what you eat, and now, you also believe what you eat.

      http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/417013/july-26-2012/chick-fil-a-s-anti-gay-marriage-announcement

      October 9, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • midwest rail

      Susie, it was an appropriate response to the "argument" you presented – which was none. You merely made a statement of opinion, which I assert is absolutely false. Try again.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:31 am |
  6. mama kindless

    James Madison (4th President and chief architect of the U.S. Const!tution):

    Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?

    –A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of VA, 1795

    October 8, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Susie

      I am sorry but what does speaking your mind from the pulpit have to do with a govt take over of religion? It has more to do with the govt taking away the freedom of speech. As long as all churches have the right to speak from the pulpit it is fair.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Susie, they do all have that right. The only exception are the ones that VOLUNTARILY gave it up in exchange for tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • Susie

      The pastors, in order to continue to help others as much as they can, have put up with this nonsense in order to feed the poor, clothing people, giving housin vouchers, starting schools in poor countries, visiting the mentally ill, the elderly and prisoners( after society has forgotten them), and encouraged moral and healthy behaviors. This does not mean they have to continue to put up with this law and they are challenging it in the courts

      October 9, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  7. Sandra

    It's time for every pastor, priest, church, 'religious' organization that preach politics, who use their religions in an attempt to influence or shape legislation need to lose their tax exemption immediately, if not sooner.

    October 8, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • Scott

      And Sandra, we will pull your First Amendment rights at the same time.

      Scott

      October 8, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • Gadflie

      This isn't a first amendment issue. After all, the churches VOLUNTARILY gave up the ability to endorse candidates when they applied for 501(c)(3) status. The same as any other non profit that does.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • Scott

      So why should ANY person or organization give up a right just so they can exercise their Freedom of Speech?

      Scott

      October 8, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Scott, I pay five figures in federal income tax every year. If I were given a deal where I could get tax exempt status by promising never to endorse a candidate in a certain venue, I would jump all over that. And, that is EXACTLY what the churches VOLUNTARILY agreed to.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • pourter

      Sandra is an individual, not a religious organization.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • Susie

      No gadfly they di not voluntarily give up their rights. Until they passed this silly law. it was common for pastors to indorse a candidate who supported their beliefs. Most nonprofits have representatives in Washingtom and in state capitals obbying for more money or changes in legislation to support their causes. It should be no difference for churches.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Sandra, the churches have to abide by EXACTLY the same rules as all other 501(c)(3) tax-exempts. They CAN lobby all they like (and do). All they cannot do is officially endorse a candidate.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • Gadflie

      And, Sandra, they obviously did voluntarily give up that right. After all, they had to apply for 501(c)(3) status. And, well, that rule is clearly spelled out for all applicants and you agree to it when you apply. It doesn't come any more voluntarily than that.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Oops, those last two posts should have been addressed to Susie, not Sandra.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  8. Rationalized

    If the activist judges weren't so biased, if media was not biased towards liberalism, Pastors didn't have to do this. Although I believe in separation of church and the state but I can see from where they are coming.

    Till few years back, you would have rarely heard Pastors openly coming out in favor of any candidates. Yes, they have moral responsibility towards their congregation and God. If you don't believe in God, too bad for you but majority of America believes in God and God doesn't like filthiness.

    October 8, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
    • Sandra

      "Activist Judges"? Have you been in a coma the past 12 years? The judges have been so conservative, they have bordered on being hide bound.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Translation of "activist judges" – any judge who makes a ruling you disagree with. There ya go, fixed that for ya.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  9. mama kindless

    Thomas Jefferson:

    Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

    –from his letters to the Danbury Baptists (1808)

    October 8, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  10. Milton

    Since when does the IRS determine who has and who has not the right to A: practice their religion and 2: speek freely against the government and 3: express themselves. We have found corporations are people but now are we saying a ptreacher is not? The government certainly has not had a problem creating mandates that affect religious practice so I see no reason why religion should sit back and simply accept it. This should go to the supreme court. As for the idea that prachers have great control over their flock...LOL...if ever there was a weak argument that is it!.

    October 8, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Your entire post is a false premise.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Actually, the IRS didn't decide it, the church did. After all, they applied for 501(c)(3) status knowing full well that this was one of the requirements.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      They enjoy tax-free status as long as they do not campaign for anyone. Corporations pay taxes (at least theoretically). Why is that so hard to understand?

      October 8, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Milton,

      "We have found corporations are people" Yes, this is the root of the problem. Money = speech.

      "People" may endorse a candidate. They may donate money they earned (after it is duly taxed) and "endorse" (ie donate) a candidate.

      If charities (churches and non-profits) are allowed to "endorse" (ie donate to) candidates you create a massive loop hole.

      Political donations (via a charity) become tax-deductible! FREE MONEY FOR POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS.

      This is what the so-called "Alliance Defending Freedom" is attempting to do.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
  11. Tax the Churches League

    Now when I watch the movie Foul Play, I find myself sympathizing with the "bad guys".

    Seriously though, if that guy who wrote the blog criticizing people who are "spiritual but not religious" needs any further explanation for why sensible, moderate, intelligent people are turning away from churches... the answer is right here.

    October 8, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  12. Jim

    A Christian minister would not preach politics from the pulpit. He woudln't need to.

    October 8, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
  13. tom

    Liberal pastors have been preaching from the pulpit for years, in support of everything from local to national candidates, and no one cared. Pastors all over the country urged their congregations to vote for Obama in 2008, to volunteer for Obama, to get out and register people to vote and encourage them to vote for Obama, and no one cared. Either all pastors need to live by the same rules or face loss of their tax exempt status, or the law needs to be done away with.
    yep amazing isnt it how slanted things are

    October 8, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • Buzz1975

      Wow. suebon and tom are not only the same person copying and pasting the same post...one actually replied to the other. Take your meds and go to bed!

      October 8, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • Scott

      But, but, but Tom! That's different!
      ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^-- whine of the liberal

      Scott

      October 8, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  14. RUROKN2

    If the person you are listening to in the pulpit is talking politics and not scripture, run! You're not dealing with a person of faith, you're in the grips of a snake oil salesman. Politics is THE dirtiest, most corrupt, and by far the most immoral activity that man gets involved with, it doesn't matter what logic these 'pastors' use to defend what they're doing, they're diving into a septic tank and taking true believer down the toilet with them.

    October 8, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  15. Igor

    The real problem is that NO religious organization should be tax exempt if they pay wages or salary to anyone. That would easily render this whole thing irrelevant.

    Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints which has unpaid clergy and also pays taxes. Romney needs to take a stand against these critters in a very public way. Think of how far it would go to balance the budget.

    October 8, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  16. Quasi

    Seems to me, that once a church, synagogue, a pastor, a priest, or any other religious organization or personages, begin to deal in politics, they are entering the arena of political action organizations, and PACS, and are using the religious donations for political purposes. Once that starts, then they must be taxed accordingly.

    Religion is supposed to be for personal gains for an afterlife, and their so desires do not trump my rights to a religion free life, in the here and now. They may claim "victimization", but they are the perpetrators of gross negligent tyranny of the majority.

    They will be so very sorry if Mittastrophe is elected.

    Obama-Biden 2012

    October 8, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  17. suebon

    Liberal pastors have been preaching from the pulpit for years, in support of everything from local to national candidates, and no one cared. Pastors all over the country urged their congregations to vote for Obama in 2008, to volunteer for Obama, to get out and register people to vote and encourage them to vote for Obama, and no one cared. Either all pastors need to live by the same rules or face loss of their tax exempt status, or the law needs to be done away with.

    October 8, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
    • tom

      yeah only the left can do it since freedom of speech is find so long as you agree with them

      October 8, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Nonsense, Tom.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @suebon,

      doubtless you are correct. Conservative pastors have been preaching from the pulpit for years too. This is not the issue.

      The issue here is speech = money. Changing the tax code to permit churches and other non-profits to "endorse" a candidate means tax-deductible donations to political campaigns. This is not only dangerous precedent but wrong on many levels.

      Hopefully the IRS will ignore this nonsense – just like they have done for the last four years this has gone on.

      If they really want to pick a fight with the IRS, pay for a newspaper advertisment. The IRS doesn't care about preachers blah blah blah – only money.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  18. Bill

    All organized religion has ever been is a tool of the powerful.

    October 8, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
  19. Gloria

    I think the churches are playing with fire by preaching politics from the pulpit-especially when they know it could negatively affect their tax-exempt status. In my parish, I am tired of my pastor talking about abortion and urging parishioners to consider not voting for pro-abortionist politicians. At those times, I have the strong urge to walk out, but then I count to10! I am pro-life, but I am also pro-choice because I don't feel that neither my church or the government should judge who should and should not have an abortion. And, more importantly, pro-choice is the law. And the Hyde Amendment assures that no federal funds be used for abortion. My local Catholic newspaper is quick to point out which politicians in the state are pro-choice–subtly recommending that we consider not voting for them. And I can only imagine what is being said in the evangelical communities. So maybe the IRS has to enforce the law!!!

    October 8, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
    • tom

      jesse jackson has been doing it for years rev wright did it is it just wrong for the right or everyone

      October 8, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
    • susan g

      amen

      October 8, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • Sam235

      The congress does not have the authority to tax the church at all. Even if they did, 78% of Americans are Christians and would politically obliterate anyone that voted for any law to tax the church. Churches are not tax exempt because the government is allowing them to be; the government does not have any authority to tax them.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Actually, the government does have the power to tax churches. What they don't have is the power to treat churches differently than anyone else. Which is why they had to lump them in with all other 501(c)(3) non profits to be able to give them a tax break.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  20. tampajoey

    Like every Black preacher in America isn't publicly endorsing Obama.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • Thinker

      If they were, you can bet the Republicans would be screaming about it. Churches should be taxed like any other business.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Publicly endorsing is fine. Doing it from the pulpit can lead to you losing your tax-exempt status.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
    • susan g

      no tampajoey, you simpleton, they're not.....not all black people think alike............not all pastors are alike...aside from a devotion to Jesus....and as a Christian woman, having to sit through a Sunday service in Orange County, CA.. a republican stronghold, I am offended by my time to be with believer to study God's word being infected with current election subliminal intimidation.....and that's one of the reasons I switched churches 4 years ago....buy you are still a moron

      October 8, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
    • tom

      you got it

      October 8, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • william3559

      You are incorrect in your assumption. I know of three black American Pastors in the Richmond Virginia area that are against President Obama and actually endorse Mitt Romney.
      Romney/Ryan, 2012

      October 8, 2012 at 11:35 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.