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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. Nutso

    So where does this Rev. think it would end if given free reign to endorse politicians? A Congressman? A Mayor, a Gov.?
    Then what? Opens a straight line to pandering to one favorite contributing religious group. This Rev. is out of his mind.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:48 am |
  2. Chris

    I'll keep my government out of your church if you keep your church out of my government!

    October 9, 2012 at 1:39 am |
  3. Al

    Not in favor of this, but African-American congregations have been doing this for years on the other side.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:36 am |
    • Mtheumer

      Really? You have proof of this?

      October 9, 2012 at 1:39 am |
  4. Not so fast

    Many of these same church leaders believe that Mitt's Mormon Church is not christian. The pastor saying these things from the pulpit tell people not to vote for Obama because "he is not american." So if I am understanding this right, he would rather a non christian become president of what he surely believes is a Christian nation. This makes all the sense in the world.
    I know for a fact that many christian churches still have bias. Many of them have their "black" congregations and their "White" congregations. (Look back just this summer when a mixed raced couple were not allowed to be married in a church because its members opposed mixed race marriage) Perhaps when this Pastor refers to Obama as being "Un American." He meant that because of the color of his skin?

    October 9, 2012 at 1:30 am |
  5. obviousISobvious

    They're doing this specifically in hopes the IRS, and by extension Obama's government will get the blame for cracking down on Christianity. It is entirely a political ploy.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:28 am |
  6. MarcNJ

    Start taxing their property holdings too.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:14 am |
  7. stevetall

    TAX THE CHURCHES!!! If you don't want to be above the political fray, you should have to pay taxes just like the rest of us.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • Aces Full Mike

      Same should go for the Unions!

      October 9, 2012 at 1:18 am |
  8. Not so fast

    Jesus seperated church from state. Jesus was constantly being tested by those who sought to cast him out as someone who opposed the government or Caesar. Jesus never once denied the right of government to govern. He may not have liked the decisions but we never once hear him say anything anti government or anti Ceaser. "Render unto Caesar what is Caesars"
    The scriptures tell us that all leaders are ordained by God. So why would churchs feel the need to go against those that God has ordained?
    It would seem that these christian churchs ignore the words of God, and the example set my Jesus in order to get a tax break. I wonder what their God will have to say about that on judgement day?

    October 9, 2012 at 1:13 am |
  9. thomas

    Again it is ok for Black pastors to denounce Obama for his stand on gay marriage but not a white pastor? Sounds like like reverse racism to me.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:06 am |
    • Kuron

      It is one thing to criticize someone and yet another to tell someone how to cast their vote. However, as Christians we should not stand in judgement or condem another:

      Luke 6:37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • DC1973

      Oh. You think "reverse racism" is a thing. How cute.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:43 am |
  10. AE Pucc

    Live & let live, don't need a book cobbled together by a bunch of shamans trying to control the masses...To get along. They ARE businesses, if they choose to be political, than they should be TAXED as well.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:03 am |
  11. Kuron

    The church is to preach the word of God, not get involved in politics. It is one thing to preach what the Bible teaches and tell your congregation to pray for guidance in casting their vote (and the law allows this). It is yet another to tell them who to vote for (or against). Politics belong to "Caesar" as much as taxes do:

    Luke 20:25 "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." and as was mentioned, Romans 13:1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:01 am |
  12. patrick harris

    Tax those small minded southern rednecks- its about time these brainwashed idiots pay up. All religions are fake, there is no such thing you dummies- and santa clause does not exist either, sorry to be the one to break the sad news to you...

    October 9, 2012 at 12:59 am |
  13. Ben

    Grant them their wish. Take them to court.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • patrick harris

      unfortunately, the pig lawyers are the only winners – they have a vested interest in arguing this over and over and over and over again... but hopefully we finally get to tax these worthless idiotic religious organizations

      October 9, 2012 at 1:04 am |
  14. JohnInNova

    These churches should be taxed out of "business"!!!!

    October 9, 2012 at 12:51 am |
  15. Priest

    I'm pretty sure churches are automatically exempt and do not have to apply to the IRS. However, I prefer to remain non tax exempt, have not filed for exemption, never will. Neither the IRS nor any other organization can tell me what I can and cannot say.

    Therefore, I pray that Romney wins and ObamaCare is shot down.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:45 am |
    • b4bigbang

      Care if i in win romney obama and the rest!

      October 9, 2012 at 12:48 am |
    • b4bigbang

      And i almost forgot Korea.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • Mary1972

      I pray that Oabma wins and ACA stays and then, I can plan for my retirement. If Romney wins, I may have to work till I croak or move to Costa Rica.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:01 am |
  16. Phattee

    Obvious answer: TAX THESE POLITICKING PASTORS

    October 9, 2012 at 12:43 am |
  17. Scholar

    Note that the Johnson Amendment IRS rule does not apply only to churches but to any 501(c) designated organization, that no organization with that tax designation can engage in biased political activities and retain that tax exempt designation.

    The rule does not single out churches but is a blanket rule governing all organizations.

    The government is prohibited by the First Amendment from treating religious organizations specially by recognizing religious organizations specially from all other organizations designated as 501(c) tax exempt organizations. The law draws a line that does not recognize churches as special as the law cannot do so.

    The ADF attempts to overturn the doctrine of separation of church and state and, in effect, the First Amendment itself, in contesting the law governing activities permitted and prohibited of 501(c) organizations. It will succeed only in having the line drawn more clearly and not in favor of churches.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:43 am |
  18. CY75206

    Wow....so it's amazing to me that they would preach this from the pulpit.

    Not only is this a disregard of legal statute, it is complete abandon from the "word" they preach and to which they are held accountable. Trust me, I grew up in church.

    Read Romans 13:1-7. In short, Christians are "mandated" by God (as they believe in him) to obey the law of the land. In fact, the bible specifically says it is Godly to do so. (And this IS in the New Testament, but I'm sure some theological master will have an explanation as to why this does not apply, now.).

    Anyway, by defying this, they are blatantly defying God – IF they read the same bible I do.

    Interesting....very devout, knowledgable pastors, yes?

    God help us all. Maybe these are the false prophets the bible warns about.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:41 am |
    • Scholar

      These so-called religious leaders are venturing outside of religion and into politics, yes, in defiance of many teachings.

      One wonders if Jesus would recognize his teachings in today's churches and religious leaders when his own words spoken in the Sermon on the Mount called such people hypocrites when they speak too publicly and too prominently of their piety instead of praying to God in private and in the silence of their own hearts.

      It seems that private prayers are pure and public ones are hypocritical, spoken not to God, but in pubic so one can be seen to be praying, as hypocrites do.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:47 am |
  19. GodisI

    Tax them at least 10 % they are a business and the country needs the money. It’s just a another legal scam
    And who listens to these guys anyway? What idiot is going to let a preacher tell them how to vote?

    October 9, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • DC1973

      You haven't stopped by a church lately, have you? They live to be told how to live, what to do, and what to believe.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:45 am |
  20. Geoff

    Christians cannot possibly vote for today's version of republicans. Don't so would be slapping God in the face. Republicans are a party of hate and oppression and diminishing personal liberties. Penguins do not support hate so they would never vote for republicans. The Reverend Johnson must be anti-Christ if he believes what he says.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:37 am |
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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.