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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. Dave

    Religion exists to herd the less intelligent into conforming to rules the Church controls. The most absolute egotism is a Church assuming they have some right to whip the less intelligent into a political frenzy. Sorry, there is no salvation in Politics and no excuse for ANY religion to assume their hegemony includes the political thoughts of their parishoners. Stick to feeding the poor as your religions patriarchs demanded of you.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  2. Republocrat

    Libs have the media, Conservs have the church. A fair fight!

    October 5, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Jay

      The media pays taxes....

      October 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  3. Richard

    So the idea is that these churches think they have a right to my money. Well I'm saying you don't. You're not a government office and you don't speak for everyone. You don't sent troops to fight wars or take care of me when I'm unemployed. If you get involved in politics you're breaking a rule and you can say whatever you want but don't expect me to help you do it with my money because I don't agree with you. I say tax all churches, otherwise it it's like paying a lobbyist that you don't know to lobby for whatever they want and if you're preaching politics in a church in essence that is what you're doing.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • wilmanf

      I think that you are missing the point. Aren't churches made up of US citizens? Those citizens have the right to speak up their minds just like everyone else. The same way the government can endorse gay-marriage, abortion, and violate religious freedom by siding with the LGBTA and with the liberals under the pretext of equality, the church can do the same thing by opposing that wickedness. It is UN-American to oppose what the church is doing. I stand with God's people!

      October 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  4. Philojazz

    Using some of the words of President George W Bush, "Bring it on, preachers! Bring it on!" We could certainly use the extra tax revenue that we will soon be receiving from these hypocritical tax cheats.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  5. Jay

    Hey this works out. Mr. Romney was looking for a way to come up with that missing $3trillion in his tax reform....

    October 5, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  6. shawbrooke

    Good for them. It is contrary to free speech to allow people like teachers, who are fully tax supported, to talk about politics, but churches cannot, supposedly because some donations provide a tax advantage.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Silly God

      Teachers pay taxes. Churches don't. I'm sorry that went over your head.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • tekstep1

      Teachers cannot talk about political preference in the classroom either.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Jay

      Teachers are allowed to talk about politics, but not openly endorse one side or the other in the classroom. Outside of the classroom they may endorse whom ever they would like. If teachers were not allowed to speak of politics in school there would be a large gap in American History courses. It is essential for teachers to teach the political system.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • kpotter7

      What are you talking about!? Teachers are not allowed to promote political opinions. In fact in my school district, NO school employee is allowed to do so.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  7. Silly God

    Christan hate. Ain't it wonderful?

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

    I believe these guys have become an arm of the GOP. Leave politricks to the politicians and preach the Gospel.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  9. JASON

    I suppose all of you who are against churches commenting on politics also feel that all tax exempt orginazations should not speek about politics. This means Media Matters, and all other 401c3 orginazations that are allowed to spend a certain % on politics. Why are they allowed to and not the churches? Churches should have the same rules as all other tax exempt orginazations, it is called equal treatment under the law.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Silly God

      No, it's called separation of church and state.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • T'sah From Virginia

      Churches are aupposed to speak the word of GOD and the President and/or whomever runs against him is not applying for the position to be GOD – There are many 'different" beliefs in a church – Therefore, seperate Church from politics!

      October 5, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  10. Andrew

    Churches get tax exemptions as a non-profit charitable organization. The moment they become political, then they become a political action group that should not get that exemption. This way, government doesn't get involved in religion and vice versa. The seperation of church and state is not a revolving door, or even a one way door, but it is and should be a brick wall.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • David

      Amen Andrew

      October 5, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • SwingstatePat

      I wholeheartedly agree. Pull their tax-exempt status!!!

      The pulpit is for loftier purposes than crass politics.

      Ever since the founding fathers, who were concerned about the religious conflict that had all Europe on edge, separation of church and state has been a cornerstone of our democracy.

      The political agenda of modern day televangical churches strives more to curry hate than instill compassion. Spewing hate by distorting the Old Testament is more LUCRATIVE than actually teaching Christ's compassion in the New Testament, who said, "'Love your neighbor as yourself." and "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."

      October 5, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  11. Lynda Jones-Owings

    Ron Johnson you are a hipocrite; you have tones of gay people in churches all over the country and you take their tides and offerings and you never think about the fact that they are gay. If the president is wrong, you are just as wrong for allowing them to attend your churches. How many of you so called preachers are gay yourselves, but are on the downlow. You are sad bunch of hipocrits. You have no right telling people who to vote for; I pray that God will remove your entire congregations.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  12. Drew

    I agree, pull their exempt status. You break the rule you accept the punishment. They are welcome to pay taxes and say whatever they want. As a christian this makes me sick. I would boo if my pastor tried to tell me who to vote for.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  13. aberdaine

    As a pastor of a congregation that is a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, I will not be particpating in this particular day as a matter of theological principal. We believe, teach, and confess that our pulpits are for preaching Christ crucified for the salvation of mankind and not as a place to preach the kingdom of the left (politics). I respect the rights and views of othes, as it relates to their political choices, but I am not comfortable supporting one party or candidate over another from the pulpit. In fact my congregation has no idea what my political leanings are.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • yep

      Perhaps you should cease the brainwashing... stop preying on fear and doubt...

      October 5, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Lynda Jones-Owings

      Preach, Pastor!!!

      October 5, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  14. Menace

    Now I know why i don't attend church anymore. It's not about God anymore, it's about the opinion of a man.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Drew

      Exactly. This is sad. Go to church... but certainly not at one of these 1,400. How about they worry about getting their congregation to feed the hungry, instead of worrying about getting them to the polls.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  15. Greyhound37

    I smell a huge windfall coming for the IRS if this group carries through with pushing this to the courts.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  16. Hans Hageman

    Is it a fair election if one side has to pay taxes and the other doesn't?

    October 5, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  17. EatYouAlive

    Go get 'em IRS.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  18. Separation

    Churches have always had the right to be involved in politics. I see no problem with this. Pull the tax exemption immediately and let them go their own way. The pastors are confused if they think they can be involved in politics and maintain their tax exempt status for donors, a little clarification helps.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • nope

      @sep...
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • nope

      changed my mind.

      yep

      October 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Simon

      Why are these churches so greedy? It's so sickening. If they want to talk politics then they can pay taxes since they don't want to follow seperation of church and state amendment. And if these pastors think that voting for a Republican monster would be better than someone that is for the people, then they shouldn't be pastors but clowns.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • truth be told

      I do not believe that nope would change its mind. I do believe desperate atheists would steal a name on an anonymous blog to try to look smart. A smart atheist is an exercise in futility.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • .

      "Ronald Regonzo" who degenerates to:
      "truth be told" degnerates to:
      "Atheism is not healthy ..." degenerates to:
      "Dodney Rangerfield" degenerates to:
      "tina" deganerates to:
      "captain america" degnerates to:
      "just sayin" degenerates to:
      "Chad" degnerates to
      "Bob" degnerates to
      "nope" degnerates to:
      "2357" degenerates to:
      "WOW" degnerates to:
      "fred" degnerates to:
      "!" degenerates to:
      "pervert alert"

      This troll is not a christian.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  19. Dave

    Religion is about God. Politics is about country. There is a wall between the two. If the Churches want to abandon religion and move to politics they will need to pay the fare to ride the Ferry. That simply comes down to TAXES. I am all in favor of taxing the Churches when they jump into politics where they do NOT belong.

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

      @dave
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • nope

      changed my mind..

      yep

      October 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  20. jakku

    this is the last thing we need in a secular country. The churches and temples or mosques for that matter are supposed to cater to the religious needs of their people not to their political needs. That is why we have politicians. They are ONLY to cater to their religious needs and advice them. When they start endorsing politicians, we must stop them.

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

      @jak...
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • .

      nope is a dope

      October 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • nope

      changed my mind...

      yep

      October 5, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      How did we do that before 1954? If the answer is we didn't then I suppose that makes a case for religious groups to reassert their voice. Case being the observable decline of American society over the last 60 some years. This illustrates that the quarantine of religion from political dialogue is, in fact, a tactic employed by the irreligious to tip the balance of power in their favor. The separation of church and state has nothing to do with churches voicing their opinions. It has to do with the establishment of religion as an instrument of the state. I suspect this will go all the way to the Big 9.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @Bill

      If you want to start citing seperation (hilarious that you want to go with that now), then having tax exempt status, and receiving tax money is not outlined either, so we need to take away their tax free status and make sure they never get a single dime of government money with your logic. Are you ok with that Bill?

      October 5, 2012 at 3:11 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.