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. asm_ith

    If they want to behave the same as "ordinary" people or businesses and be able to speak out on politics, then they should accept the same burdens such as taxes. Instead, they want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to have a privileged position with respect to taxes but then claim that they are being suppressed in speech. If they want to speak, let them pay the same price as everyone else. If the government takes away their tax exempt status, it is not violating their freedom to practice their religion.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Tim W.

      Agree !

      October 6, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  2. Jed

    To all of the christians that are trying to force me to follow your faith please recognize something. At some point you will no longer have a majority and then your efforts will have paved the way for someone else to force you to follow their beliefs. Nothing I can do will prevent you from follwoing the word of God as you believe it to be. Jews in Nazi Germany managed to hold onto their faith and be faithfull to god despite worse then you can possibly imagine. Freedom of religion means I can choose to believe or not to beleive and no one can force me to adhere to your faith. Why is this so hard for you to understand. Your relationship with God is your choice and I respect your right to have whatever relationship you want to have with him. These effrots to force your faith on me through the denial of rights and benifits granted by the state or federal government in the name og God violate my rights.

    Live your faith don't legislate it.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  3. nsam

    IRS need to take away exempt status of these immoral pasters. They have the right to speak whatever BS they want but the federal government should not subsidice them for that.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  4. boyamidumb

    American Taliban. Give them and inch and they will be knocking down your door if you don't believe exactly as they do.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  5. Tim W.

    No problem......drop the tax exempt status of all churchs and religions ! Religions today own billions of acres of property and bussiness and are a multi billion dollar industry. Its time for them to start paying their far share ! Religions refuse to stay out of government so they broke the rules......drop the tax exempt status of all churchs and religions !!!!!!!!!

    October 5, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • littleBearFN

      As long as they comply, they should remain tax exempt. It will be a shame for the activities of these rogue churches to create additional hardship on churches who already operate on a shoe string budget...

      October 5, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  6. DN

    "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." Jesus Christ.

    Do these pastors actually read the Bible?

    October 5, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  7. mk045

    “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.

    No, the IRS cannot regulate what they say. If the pastors want to waive their tax-free special exemption, then they are welcome to say whatever they want. Nobody says churches have to be tax-free. Or smart, for that matter...

    October 5, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  8. BH

    My point of view of church is a business. Many in the church have intent to help other people which is charity, but many get corrupted, abuse children, embezzle money, etc. Churches are business and should be treated such. You receive money from churchgoers (you record it as an income), you use money to run a church and for charitable purposes (you record it as an expense). In the end of the year you run your balance and pay taxes on income. This way church will have freedom of speech (as business are considered to be a person) and won't be violating separation of the state and the church what some pastors seems to forget is also in the first amendment. As one can see this goes both ways!!!

    October 5, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  9. Thomas

    Take away their tax exempt status and then they can do whatever they want. As long as my taxes are going to make up for their God Businesses, then stay out of politics. It is that simple. We don't need these religious nuts forcing their beliefs and opinions on the world any more then they do.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  10. Ethics Board

    Awesome, let them say what they want. If you break a contract (or law in this case), you are found liable and you pay up (in the form of taxes in this case). Tax exempt status for churches is stupid to begin with. Preach, but pay.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  11. Victor Cartman

    Arrest them all. It'll cost fewer tax dollars in the end.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  12. Doug Harrod

    I am a Christian, attend church regularly, a member of our church counsel, participate on mission trips and have a son who is a missionary. No church should explicitly or implicitly endorse any canddate or party. If we allow this then they should lose their tax exempt status. PERIOD

    October 5, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  13. Susan

    These pastors need to be concerned over Mitt's so-called cult – religion. They also need to stay out of ppl's bedrooms!

    October 5, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • charlotte

      Why? His magic, invisible sky people are no more ridiculous than theirs.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • James PDX

      Actually, his magic, invisible sky people might be just a little more ridiculous. Wings clash with magic tighty whities.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  14. larry

    What he will do should not be against the law. However, it should immediately cause the revocation of the church's tax exempt status.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  15. Blowcoldblowhot

    I suggest to the Pastors that they secretly endorse the candidate(Romney) that they support and encourage block voting to their members thru the email or mail . In this way you don't have to do this during your sermon and IRS has no way of knowing that you are violating the separation of church and state.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • charlotte

      Hopefully there will be some honest people among their email targets who will turn the evidence of this criminal behavior over to the FBI. Tax the damn churches, they are behaving more like Karl Rove and company than like a church. If they want to keep govermnent out of the church then they should keep their f****** church out of government.

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

    I stopped going to church years ago because of this very thing. If they want to discuss politics and political ideals in the pulpit, then they can pay taxes. Shoot, think of what that would do for the budget?

    October 5, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Visitor

      So did my late Father in Law. He stopped going to Catholic Church because of political posturing and he never returned, to any Church.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  17. Joshua Ludd

    So, what they want is religious freedom for themselves, and their religious principles enshrined in law for everyone else. Obama hasn't taken away your religious freedom... you just can't force your religion on others.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  18. littleBearFN

    Sorry... But the 'liberal/progressive' prospective (aside from the abortion issue when used a birth control), is more in line with Christianity. These poor schmucks!

    October 5, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  19. Jimh77

    These Pastors will probably be greeted by the FBI. And it will be a greeting that I don't think the Pastors will like very much.
    There is a very good reason why there is a seperation of Church and State.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • charlotte

      Tax the churches. If they want to get into politics they are no longer a valid exemption.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  20. mark

    There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them..

    -Mitt Romney

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

      No, No, NO, he now says he was wrong about that. And if you believe that I have bridge I'll sell you.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • charlotte

      You can't trust that guy as far as you can throw him.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:40 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.