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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. atomD21

    Regardless of the johnson amendment and all of that, politics don't belong at the pulpit. That goes for candidates speaking in churches as well as pastors endorsing or condemning candidates. I always hated what happened in churches near election time. All of a sudden, the democrat is the anit christ that wants to kill church and every unborn baby while smoking drugs that they legalized, and the republican is God's gift to the country that wants to make Christianity the national religion and bring the bible into every facet of life. It all felt pretty disgusting, even as a kid and teenager to hear that nonsense. I think churches and any charitable group that seek to actively get involved politically should lose their tax exempt status.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:37 am |
  2. slupdawg

    Tax the hell out of them.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:32 am |
  3. Bebek Sincap

    There is no violation of the First Amendment. The pastors are 'FREE' to SAY anything they wish. However, if they wish to be considered 'tax exempt', there are rules around how to qualify for this tax exempt status. In short, the pastors are FREE to choose complete freedom of speech and taxes, or limits to their political speech and no taxes.

    There is no violation of their freedom to speak, or their freedom of religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:18 am |
    • Joe

      So they are free to speak as long as they say what the government approves. By those standards the whole world has free speech.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:38 am |
    • Kenny Romano

      Joe is religious, thus doesn't rely on his brain to understand the world, and so doesnt fully grasp the idea.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:17 am |
  4. NY Veteran

    Put an IRS agent with a meter in every church every sunday. The minute the ministers to the middle class start talking politics turn the meter on at a painful rate. It will employ more IRS workers and raise revenues from snake oil salesmen. Their tax exempt status is a sham anyway.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:28 am |
    • donivan

      Then you are not in support of the Bill of Rights. Read it then read the amendment, it is a violation of the 1st amendment through and through.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:39 am |
    • Dave Thrush

      Gee, now you know why Obama has hired thousands of IRS agents...but they'll need to put on their armbands and brown shirts, and I'm sure you'll be there cheering them on...

      October 9, 2012 at 3:49 am |
  5. farnorse

    donivan ,some alid points .but nowhere in the bible does itmention god being from the planet colob,jesus admonished the sinner,and vanquished false prophets.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:23 am |
    • donivan

      First its spelled Kolob, which was assumed through Egyptian hieroglyphics. Of course it does not speak of Kolob in the Bible. Never said it did, lol. But they do believe in God and the son of God. Yes God did urge and talk firm to sinners, but he showed them love and compassion if their faith and quest for the truth was strong. That is why the 2 men that were crucified next to Jesus were admitted to heaven because the repented and believed Jesus was the Son of God

      October 9, 2012 at 3:36 am |
  6. SixDegrees

    "We are supposed to be part of the community discussion"

    OK. Then pay your fair share of the community's expenses.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • donivan

      Then ask for the 80. Million out there to pay their fair share as well. But Mr Johnson has a point. Go back and read the Bill of Rights and tell me that the Johnson Amendment does not break that law. Furthermore read behind why the amendment was created in the first place, here's a spoiler it was not meant for churches.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:25 am |
  7. OrganicManLives_N_anOraganicUNiverSE

    Mormons think God Lives on Planet Kolob or the planet next to it .... they are not quite sure.
    Mormons think Jesus came to the Americas
    Mormons Baptize the dead
    Mormons Wear religious undergarments.
    I'll stick with Obama thank you!

    October 9, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • donivan

      So if you never had been baptised and you passed on, then you don't want it? I'll make sure they get the memo and hope you have fun in hell.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:43 am |
    • slupdawg

      There's no such thing as hell, Donivan. Wake the hell up.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:34 am |
    • Kenny Romano

      I think donivan is trolling. Religious people aren't THAT dumb, are they?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:19 am |
  8. OrganicManLives_N_anOraganicUNiverSE

    What's funny is Mormons are NOT the same as regular Christians HA HA HA HA .... you people should stop listening to others and do your own homework, you have google... you don't have to read the entire book of mormon (as I have done) to know the truth... Instead just let your pastor tell you another lie.. I'm not saying Mormons are bad people I'm just saying they are not the same believers... they know their God is alive and living on Planet Kolob.... HA HA HA HA

    October 9, 2012 at 3:08 am |
    • donivan

      Actually, they believe tha Kolob is near the throne of God. But hey Islam believes Allah came from nothing, then later say he came from a mountain region east of Mecca. Go figure.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:46 am |
  9. postedbygeo

    religion, more Muddle-Eastern_gibberish

    October 9, 2012 at 3:06 am |
  10. Chris33

    Science flies you to the moon.

    Religion flies you into buildings.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:05 am |
  11. Chris33

    Time to take away their tax exempt status.

    Most of them are in it for the money.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:04 am |
    • donivan

      Not true. Most churches struggle for many years before becoming major successes. Majority of pastors do it for the love of God and fellow man

      October 9, 2012 at 3:10 am |
  12. mark

    The tax exempt status should be eliminated. People don't get tax exempt status for worship. The real test of the IRS laws would be a nationwide movement where EVERYONE starts calling their own house a 'house of worship' and demand that all their expenses from food to clothing to principal on mortgage payments all come right off the top of their income and that their 'work' (particularly if you work at home) is in fact donation to the church and should be considered 'tax free'.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • donivan

      That's taking it too far in the other direction.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:04 am |
  13. farnorse

    more repub rubish to help the cultist romney,yes many of our fellow cristian brothers and sisters have drunk the tea.so here is your wake up!mormons are not christians!they are and always have been acult....

    October 9, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • donivan

      Mormons are christians, but they stray away from some of the principles that mainstream Christians believe. None the less, those that believe in God are considered brethren. Jesus ate with sinners and preached to the publicly condemned to inspire, teach and spread the word of God's favor and love.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:08 am |
  14. Burt

    A new source of revenue for the IRS ! Thanks to all these stupid pastors 😉

    October 9, 2012 at 2:24 am |
    • donivan

      Along with the 80 million other Americans that pay no taxes

      October 9, 2012 at 2:28 am |
    • donivan

      Need to worry about them first before churches. Trust me.. that's almost a trillion dollars right there

      October 9, 2012 at 2:29 am |
    • G

      Less money though for settlements of lawsuits involving pedophile priests and ministers.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:26 am |
  15. Raymond J

    If they want to accept financial support from the government in the form of tax exemption churches should not be telling people how to vote. To be fair though, lets see some discussion of how public sector unions should not be doing the same thing in addition to directly funneling taxpayer dollars from union dues into campaign contributions. When I pay taxes I want to know that I am not paying more to subsidize the opinions of a pastor I do not agree with and I want to know I am not paying more to cover wage increases for public sector employees that factor in union dues that are then donated to a politician I do not support. Free speech is great but nobody has the right to have their political organization funded by somebody who would not support that organization.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:14 am |
    • donivan

      Good argument, but somewhat different. Churches may say for you to vote for someone, but that is your choice. They don't do campaigning. However, the unions DO give monies to parties and still don't pay taxes. People that work for unions have no say where their money goes once it leaves their check.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:26 am |
  16. Linda sadler

    Baptize in jesus name and get the holy spirit. Acts 2 38. Its for us today.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:13 am |
    • donivan

      Glory to God

      October 9, 2012 at 2:32 am |
  17. donivan

    Churches are not allowed to hold seats in government, nor are they to contribute monies or bribe government officials. That is what is meant by separation of church and state. Funny that an amendment had to be passed some 180 years later to grant churches tax exemption for political vow of silence. These people are still American citizens, yet are denied the right to freedom of speech. People that choose to blind eye to the silencing of God's word are just like Peter denying knowing Jesus. If you love God and you know that something does not fit into God's plan, then speak up. That is how Adam and Eve lost Eden, but not standing up for the word of God.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:08 am |
    • a slozomby

      there is nothing stopping the churchs from paying taxes and preaching whatever they like. but i guess spending the money on 50ft statues of jesus is more important that integrity

      October 9, 2012 at 2:12 am |
    • donivan

      @slozomby. The churches get that funding through donations. Most churches have a lot of integrity. You might want to talk to your local pastor and ask him about God and all the church works and the good that churches do for families and communties. That way you gain knowledge and perspective.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:22 am |
    • CJA

      OK, I agree people inside a private club (such as a church) should be able to say what they like to each other. But why would they not have to pay taxes?

      October 9, 2012 at 2:23 am |
    • donivan

      @CJA that money is given to the church by worshippers to sow a seed in faith and to help spread the word about Jesus. Wha it means to be a Christian and what have you. If the government collects that money they are breaking the separation of church and state and taking what belongs to God. Furthermore, they are taxing the income which I given to them, so its like second hand double taxing.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:37 am |
    • Joe

      Certainly you do not mind the separation of politics and religion in this case. Someday there might be a POTUS that wants to declare Muslim or Scientology the Official Religion Of the US, and all Christians (and other non-believers of the official religion) shall be condemned to jail – how would you like that ?
      Separation of Church and State and freedom of religion must be respected

      October 9, 2012 at 4:43 am |
    • Kenny Romano

      I say take away the tax exemption entirely. Religion is fake, and it should be considered as no more than entertainment. I find it disturbing that a preacher/pastor/priest can live for free while telling fairy tales to a bunch of scared sheeple. They are all charlatans offeringno more than snake oil.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:14 am |
  18. a slozomby

    the irs doesnt regulate their sermon's just their tax exempt status. for the privledge of being tax exempt they are required to not endorse a political candidate. they are welcome to continue to preach whatever they want. as long as they pay taxes like everyone else.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:06 am |
  19. Linda sadler

    Truth; no trinity, father is not a name.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:04 am |
    • donivan

      ????

      October 9, 2012 at 2:42 am |
    • ==o==

      The chair is not my son.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:13 am |
  20. donivan

    Jesus states that what belongs to government goes to the government, but what belongs to God shall only go to Him. However, Jesus certainly did speak up against wrong doing in God's house. And he certainly did not do as the governor asked him to do, which was prove he was the son of God. Yes, he defied the law of government because it did not glorify God. That is the point that some are mising here. How to correct problems and find happiness are detailed in the Bible. I encourage people to read it, study it and talk to a pastor that is well educated in the Bible for clarification.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:58 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.