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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. John

    Hmm maybe the IRS is just giving them enough rope to hang themselves by? Or perhaps they have a number of on-going investigations into the shady fiances of these people and don't want to jeopardize them?

    Personally I hope the IRS locks the pastors away for non-payment and confiscates the "churches" and their property to make up some of the past-due taxes. Just imagine that upheaval not having someone doing their thinking for them would cause all the sheeple who attend those "sermons".

    October 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Viking

      Using the term "sheeple" is derogatory.

      I disagree with certain folks but don't label them for having a contrary opinion, even if they don't hold to the same kind of civility in their discourse.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  2. Viking

    My truly conservative friends believe that their churches deserve free speech AND a tax exemption!

    I pointed out that the effect of the tax-preferred status means that I am supporting beliefs that are in conflict with my own, which doesn't bother them at all.

    If churches become a "bully pulpit" in a political sense, they are truly organizations that should be subject to full taxation and lose their reduced-rate postage privilege.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  3. Martin

    Religious fascists in action. I hope the IRS hammers them. Welcome to the American equivalent of the Taliban because if they're allowed to get away with this their next actions will be far more heinous.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  4. Mark Egger

    Why the hell (seems appropriate) do ANY churches get tax breaks anyway?? Perpetuating a belief in mythology doesn't seem like an activity worthy of tax exemption to this hard-working, midddle-class taxpayer...

    October 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • Sky Pilot

      For that matter, why would a church have or even need money? Can't "god" properly support his flock without human help? Hilarious stuff, what Christians will fall for.

      If the church management breaks the law, society should punish them appropriately just as any other criminal would be punished.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  5. griffina

    The IRS is not trying to limit what the churches say. Just that they can't say it tax free.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  6. jim atmad

    It's against the law to do what this man is doing, and he is doing so for purely political reasons. That sure doesn't make him a hero in my book.

    #1, pull THIS church's tax exemption immediately.

    #2, we really need to eliminate EVERY church's tax exemption. Most churches aren't churches any more. They're political cover organizations.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Ed T Duck

      "Most churches aren't chuches anymore. They're political cover organizations". What? Are you really that delusional?

      October 5, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  7. David

    Pull their tax exempt status. They made a deal - no taxes in exchange for a curb on a specific type of political speech. If they wish to endorse a candidate (their right under the 1st Amendment), then they can pay taxes too.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  8. joe dokes

    Let them endorse politicians all they want... AFTER they start paying taxes like everyone else.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  9. MaryM

    Mormon Church was hit with a Big fine because of their involvement in funding of the Prop 8 in CA. This is what Mitts donations to his Mormon church goes to. Take Away the Mormons tax exempt status. Now

    October 5, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  10. RMATTEN

    If churches start dictating public policy, what is the difference between them and the Taliban? It's a matter of degree!!

    October 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Lee-Anne

      Since they aren't dictating anything, but just giving an opinion, it isn't like the Taliban at all which was religious group controlling the country. Apples to oranges.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  11. aaron

    The majority of these preachers are just in it for the money. If they're trying to increase contributions by invoking politics, the churches darn well should have to pay taxes. They gotta a right to say what they want to, but they don't have the right to not pay taxes like the rest of us if they're a political organizaion.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  12. Don in Houston

    Judging from the comments here, I'd say these religious zealots who want to endorse candidates while keeping their tax-exempt status are opening up a can of worms. Let them endorse, but make them pay taxes like any other business. Because that's what they are - a business. Ask Joel Osteen, who is CEO of his church.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  13. James

    Good ! Then they should lose their tax exempt status!

    October 5, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  14. NeverTooL88

    This has been a law on the books since 1954, but I wonder, has it ever been enforced? Has any church or religious organization ever lost its tax exempt status for violating this law? I don't know. Just asking.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Viking

      Years ago, I complained to the post office when a church my wife belonged advocated a political position.

      The next newsletter complained bitterly about somebody 'ratting them out' but they never did it again because they didn't want to lose their reduced-rate postage privilege.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  15. Waterchestnut III

    Make these religious freaks pay taxes. That should shut them up or put them on the street.

    Obama rules!

    October 5, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  16. andrea

    This is ridiculous. Churchs are already overly catered to in this country and now they're trying to put up a fight over being able to speak politically? How Christian is that? Time to revoke their tax exempt status. But, that won't happen. One more step to a theocracy.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  17. cra

    If churches do not like the concept of the separation of church and state then fine. Have them pay taxes. Make the pastors pay income tax on the use of the parsonages or housing allowances as income. Also since they are to be political organization make sure their members can't deduct their donations from their taxes. Democrats and Republicans can't deduct political contribution so equality should dictate niether can political church members. I am tired of so-called Christians complaining that they are oppressed because they can't impose theit beliefs on other people.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  18. clarinet

    Blacks have been preaching politics from the pulpit all along without as much as a sniff from the libs. Let the whining begin as soon as the whites start doing the same. Personally, let them all say whatever they want! "Congress shall make no law respecting..."

    October 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • James PDX

      You are correct. Therefore, Congress needs to repeal the law granting churches tax exempt status.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Visitor

      I agree. No politicking by any church or else they lose their tax exempt status. Why should I pay taxes on my donations to say, NARAL, but some religious nut gets to preach in a Church without paying the same tax? We either make all political donations tax free, or tax all the churches.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  19. James PDX

    I certainly hope they will send their taxes for at least 2012 along with their videos to the IRS. Appropriately taxing all churches in America would actually pay down a fair amount of our debt. I have to wonder why these same pastors aren't speaking out against Romney, who has unchristianly called 1/2 of America a bunch of worthless leeches that he doesn't care about and for all of the blatant lies he has been caught in. Seems a bit hypocritical to pick and choose which sins you will endorse and which you will condemn.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Scott

      Better than that James PDX, I wonder why this so called Christian Pastors don't get on Romney about his religion. The Mormon Church was founded by Joseph Smith, who was a polygamist. In fact Romney's Great Grandfather fled the US to Mexico so he could keep his 4 wives and be a polygamist. I guess Christian Pastors forget that kind of crap. Why don't they call themselves the Ununited Church of the Republicans. I am a Christian and don't participate in a regular church now because they are hypocrites and choose which sins are ok and which are not.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  20. Honey Badger Dont Care

    I sincerely hope that after the election President Obama beotch slaps all of these churches and takes away their tax exempt status.

    Next we just have to work on taking away this exemption from all churches.

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

      If we can get the Supreme Court to revoke all churches' tax exempt status retroactive to 1776 with interest, we could actually wind up with a surplus at the end of Obama's 2nd term.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Greyhound37

      Really? What fantasy world are you living in where you think the President will take on churches?

      You realize he drinks the kool-aid too, don't you?

      October 5, 2012 at 3:07 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.