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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. Don in Houston

    It is hypocritical of these pastors to demand to speak out in support of a political candidate and keep their tax-exempt status. Of course they have the right to vote and to privately support whomever they like. However, to preach in support of a candidate from the bully pulpit is a clear violation of the principle of separation of church and state in America. If they want to speak out, fine - pay your taxes and you can do whatever you like. Personally, I don't feel churches, many of which are fabulously wealthy, should be tax exempt. If religious organizations paid their fair share of taxes, we could solve our deficit problem immediately.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  2. Ambrogino

    Our forefathers were very clear on the issue of seperation of "Crutch" and State ;many of whom were not devout in any way. They did not want this nation they were creating to be beholden to any ideology of organized religious cult. Unfortunatley, naivete is learned behavior, usually passed down from parents to children...

    October 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • laodegan

      Our forefathers were very clear about keeping the state out of churches, too. They didn't put a caveat on freedom of religion: "Only if they don't talk about politics." Silly liberals.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  3. GvilleT

    These churches need to start paying taxes then. After that, they can say whatever they want. I'm a Christian, but I don't want my church or preacher telling me what I can or can't do. Whoever does is ignorant and is letting another human, sinning, biased person lead you around instead of Jesus. The church and preacher are very useful tools in most Christian's lives, but the church/preacher shouldn't make any single decisions in one's life.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  4. independent

    Absolutely. Let him say whatever he wants. And, as soons as he opens his mouth and says that, tell him his church has lost it's tax exempt status, refer the decision to the State Dept of Revenus for their consideration, and also remind the good Pastor that he is no longer exempt from providing comprehensive health care coverage for all of his employees, including reproductive rights.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • GvilleT

      Exactly!

      October 5, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  5. Al

    Hey! A legal revenue stream. And, WE NEED THE MONEY.

    If this is their agenda, then they are a PAC. Like any other political group, they should be taxed.

    When they decide to go back to teaching scripture, then they can be reconsidered for tax exemption (which, I believe, should not exist anyway).

    And, YES, I am a Christian, of the protestant sector, and Southern Baptist by denomination. *** Keep politics out of my religion and worship *** If you want to campaign, don't do it in a church and on my dime.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  6. RW

    Silly folks, Laws are for Liberals

    October 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  7. rdeleys

    I'm SO tired of these whining Christians pretending to be oppressed and discriminated against. It's time we started taxing churches.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • laodegan

      I'm SO tired of these religion haters whining about churches expressing their religious freedoms and free speech.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "I'm SO tired of these religion haters whining about churches expressing their religious freedoms and free speech."

      yeah, just a pity that what they are doing is illegal really then isnt it? ah well .

      October 5, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  8. clubschadenfreude

    If the pastors want to try to claim that their version of god really really wants people to vote Democrat, Libertarian or Republican, let them. It' shows how idiotic they are when they all disagree. God says this! No, God really says this! Nothing says churchs have to be non-profits, and in reality, it sure seems like few are with their pastors in new cars and multimillion dollar mega churches with the latest big screen tv's.

    The IRS law prevents religious groups from getting a government handout (GASP!) by making sure that they can't spend the money they *should be spending supporting their communities on political nonsense. that's the usual claim isn't it, that churches shouldn't pay taxes because they supposedly help so many people? Or is this issue simply admitting that they don't.
    It also protects religions by not allowing the larger ones to try to force the smaller ones out of existence by politics.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  9. Eric of Reseda, CA

    END TAX EXEMPTIONS FOR CHURCHES ***NOW***!!!!

    October 5, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  10. Boisepoet

    Well James, he did say 'render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar's' indicating that the money, which bore Ceasar's likeness, was to be given to the government as taxes since it was not godly. So if money is not godly, and Jesus argued that the government has the right to collect taxes, how can you argue that Jesus would want you to keep your money and not give it all the to the government since money is of this world, and not of the Kingdom of Heaven?

    October 5, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  11. Livelystone

    A church acting in doing what a church is supposed to be doing should not have to pay taxes. However, the church is only to be a place of worship, and it has no business meddling in politics.

    For that matter the apostle Paul makes it very clear that Christians no matter where they live are to abide by the laws of the land and pray for the leaders of where they live to continue to provide a safe and peaceful environment for the churchgoers to be able to worship in

    Other than that there should be no connection between the church and the politics of any country

    October 5, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  12. Frank

    I have a better idea. Start taxing churches. They use their fair share of public services so they should pay their fair share
    of the taxes. Then, they can preach all the politics they want. If they want to continue to get tax free status they need to STFU. BTW this way applies to all non-profits, not just churches.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  13. Reasonably

    Separation of church and state. You're welcome to endorse political issues so long as you remove your tax-exempt status. Can't have it both ways, cultists...

    October 5, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  14. False Pastors

    GOD is with Obama....and not these churches....they are all evil with evil Pastors....in the last days there will be false Pastors..

    October 5, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Your tinfoil hat is a bit tight today. Might need to self-flaggelate a bit to loosen it up.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • RW

      So true !, Rush Limbaugh is here to prepare the way and ensure the antichrist has an audience that will believe the lies.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  15. therealpeace2all

    FROM THE ARTICLE:

    " 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 consti-tutionality.

    “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 unconst-itutional.”

    -----------------

    So... they are basically daring the U.S. Government to do something about it. O.K. IRS... do something about it. If they want a fight in court, let's do it... and while you're at it, take away their 'tax exempt' status... see how they like it then. After that... you godly churches can say whatever you want.

    Tax-free money going back to endorse who is the most right-wing fundamentalist candidate. Now 'that' is pretty un-American IMHO.

    Peace...

    October 5, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  16. cre8tiv

    Unions are tax exempt just like churches are.. both have a primary purpose other than advancing politics – so I wonder why one can rally the vote and the other cannot? They should be treated the same.. either both can rally the vote, neither can or perhaps both should be taxed.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Separation of Unions and State. LOL

      October 5, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  17. RayJacksonMS

    Tax them out of existence. These christian barbarians will not turn American into a jacked up christian version of Iran like they are trying to do.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  18. Bethany

    They can talk about the issues but they absolutely must not tell people how to vote. Same as me and my boss can discuss politics but my boss has no business telling me who I should vote for.

    Lose the exempt status. This is flat out disgusting. Communicate the word of God as you, a fallible individual, interpret it but do not presume to know who God would endorse and how DARE you tell your congregation who to vote for.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Jo-Ann

      Bethany – I totally agree with you – how DARE a pastor tell his congregation how to vote! I know my pastor and I are at opposite ends of THAT spectrum and I'm JUST as strong a believer as he is. So inappropriate AND presumptious! Who do they think they are?

      October 5, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  19. AFVet

    Dear Ministers: Pay taxes like everyone else or keep your mouths shut.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • laodegan

      Dear Religion Haters, since when does freedom of religion and freedom of speech require taxation?

      October 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  20. kamarasune

    Well considering that the democratic party booed and jeered at the mention of adding "God and Israel" back into its party platform it really should be a no-brainer without a preacher having to point it out....

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

      Democrats realize quite correctly that religion should not be in a political platform.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
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