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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. mark vancouver

    Let's try and leave the name calling out if this important issue. I respect the rights of anyone to say anything-free speech is our most inalienable right. This is clearly not a free speech issue, it is an issue of taxation. This pastor, or any other, should be free to state his opinion as long as he pays taxes like so many of us. I have earned the right to speak my mind because I pay my taxes. This pastor wants me, through my tax dollars, to support his personal political beliefs and that is not appropriate.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • HarvardLaw92

      These orgs voluntarilly cede certain rights in exchange for tax exemptions. Now they don't want to abide by the terms that they agreed to.

      So just start pulling the exemptions. They'll fall into line quickly.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  2. BH

    This is so wonderful. It's about time. I don't think my church will participate because they are not very politically savvy, but I can only hope. The pastor makes his statement. He doesn't force anyone to vote one way or the other. He simply counsels the parish. That is what people want from their church, especially this time when one of the candidates is a Mormon, a religion people know very little about. This is a very important movement! It's one of the best stories I have heard in some time. The churches need the money, but they need the respect of the churchgoers ever more.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  3. HarvardLaw92

    Pointless grandstanding. Revoke a few 501(c)(3) exemptions as examples and the rest of them will shut up in record time.

    If not, just keep revoking until they get the message.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  4. tony

    The creationists posting their nonsense on this blog is making US moderates into atheists at a faster rate than we thought possible.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • another repentant sinner

      I found God through the creationists on these blogs.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      Praise God.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  5. Sam

    As a Libertarian is absolutely amazes me at the amount of hypocrisy on social matters from both sides. How can someone chant "seperation of church and state" one minute, and then want the churches taxed the next? What hypocrisy. Remember our "no taxation without representation" national motto? It's only reasonable that if they're taxed that they are allowed access to the services collected from said taxes. They're going to demand (and have a rational basis for) access to schools or any other public forum they now have to pay for.

    If you want the government to ignore the churches, that's perfectly fine. I agree with that. So ignore them. If you want them taxed for being politically active, then we should make it fair; tax Media Matters, SPLC, Move On, various Tea Party organizations, and any organization Left or Right that has an inkling of political bias. We should go ahead and tax EVERY charitable organization as well. Holding one charitable organization tax accountable and another tax exempt based solely on it's religious affiliation IS religious discrimination. There's no other way to shade it. All charities should be treated the same, Christian, secular, Muslim, Flying Spaghetti Monster or otherwise.

    I may not agree with these pastors on their social stances, but I support ANYONE who speaks up when the government tells them to shut up.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Ted

      @Sam..."How can someone chant "seperation of church and state" one minute, and then want the churches taxed the next?" You should have stopped there. But you didn't. The rest of your post really makes zero sense.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Sam

      Really Ted? You don't understand the concept that Separation of Church and State is a two way street?

      October 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Neil T

      Separation of church and state has nothing to do with this issue. The issue is the Churches' tax exempt status. If they want to keep it, stop advocating for or agaisnt condidates in elections. If they want to enjoy the right to advocate, they should enjoy the right to be taxed (like everyone else who does not have tax exempt status). Pay taxes and speak your nonsense BS all you want.....

      October 5, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Sam

      You're arguing that it's our tax status that guarantee's our inalienable rights, such as free speech. That's simply incorrect. What about those citizens who pay no or negative income taxes? What about the tax exempt organizations, such as Media Matters who have obvious political affiliations? If religious organizations or charities are taxed, it is only reasonable to tax all non profit organizations or charities.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • ME II

      @Sam,
      I'm no expert on 501(c)(3) organizations, but my understanding is that they are all under the same "political activity" limitations, regardless of being religious or secular, i.e. lobbying and endorsing.

      "They're going to demand (and have a rational basis for) access to schools or any other public forum they now have to pay for."
      The representation you mention is governmental representation, not all public forums, e.g. lobbying and endorsing as mentioned above.
      The separation is keeping religion out of government and keeping government out of religion. I don't see how taxing churches would violate that separation, as long as it's done to all churches equally. In fact, one could argue that exempting churches is a violation of "pass no laws respecting an establishment of religion".

      October 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • ME II

      I think Media Matters skirts the rules by not endorsing certain candidates but only dealing with issues, but churches are under the same restrictions, as far as I understand it.

      "Media Matters for America is a Web-based, not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media."

      October 5, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Sam

      "In fact, one could argue that exempting churches is a violation of 'pass no laws respecting an establishment of religion'.

      I suppose we have differing views on taxation. I don't understand how the government NOT taxing something is the government interfering with something. I don't view the absence of taxation of an individual or organization feeding off of society, I view taxation as society feeding off of an individual or organization.

      But I digress. Ultimately I think the problem comes down to the idea of tax emption in general. Either a) we should have it, in which case ALL non profit organizations, religious or non religious, political or non political should qualify. I would see it as discrimination of there exists two very similar organizations side by side, and one was taxed for its religious affiliation while the other was not.

      Or b) there is no tax exempt status for anyone or any organization anywhere. If money exchanges hands, it is taxed.

      Does this seem rational in your opinion? Ultimately I have problems with the view that it's perfectly fine for the government to pay taxpayer money in order for some people to keep their mouths shut.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • zeigfeldf

      My handy-dandy way of thinking about these things is this: anything that puts the government in the position of deciding what is and is not a "real" religion is wrong, as it violates the Establishment Clause. From that point of view, special tax rules for religious organizations should be eliminated. If religions set themselves up as charitable or non-profit organizations, and be subject to those tax rules, then all is well, because the religious component and its legitimacy become irrelevant as far as the government is concerned.

      At the same time, and for the same reason, it is wrong for the government to deny the officials of "established" religions their first-amendment right to express their opinions in public.

      Finally, as a bonus, religious organizations will no longer be able to claim the right to opt out of any law that they don't like on the grounds of religious freedom. As long as the tax rules are obeyed, the government is officially indifferent to how they spend their spare time, whether worshiping Jesus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or making mud pies.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • ME II

      @Sam,
      "I don't understand how the government NOT taxing something is the government interfering with something."
      I don't think anyone said it was "interfering" with religion, the principle involved is to not deal with religion as a special case or exception to the law, i.e. "laws respecting an establishment of religion." If churches and religion were specifically exempted then it might be viewed as a law respecting an establishment of religion. Currently, I think, churches are handled the same as all 501c3 orgs, however the effect of those laws, one might argue, favors churches moreso than other non-profits, and therefore is a violation, by virtue of preferential treatment. That was all I was saying.

      As for your two cases, I don't necessarily disagree and would suggest that current laws is attempting to thread that very needle by stating that all 501c3's cannot "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." (http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/eotopici02.pdf)

      October 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  6. Soylent Blue

    Johnsons at the church? A black leader? More and more it looks like Mel Brooks was a prophet when he gave us Blazing Saddles.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  7. Cheese Wonton

    End the tax empt status for churches and the problem is solved. James Madison fought against granting ecclesiastical organizaitons tax exempt status back at the time of our country's founding. He was right and now we pay for not listening to his wisdom.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  8. Robert Brown

    Never gonna happen.
    They would have to start taxing nonprofit foundations, organizations, unions, …..
    Unless none of them ever get political.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Wrong

      Already happening.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Steve

      It's a special exemption for places of worship. Other nonprofits do pay some taxes.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  9. Kerr Mudgeon

    The American Taliban at work trying to turn our democracy into a theocracy. Those of us that are atheists want freedom FROM religion. It's time for the IRS to use their authority and take away the tax exempt status of these religious zealots. Wonder if the ACLU can help?

    October 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Camdog

      These churches should be burned to the ground.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  10. EJW

    They should pull the tax exempt status for all 1400 of those churches as well as any that are advocating voting FOR Obama.

    Keep your delusions of being chosen out of my government.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  11. Robert in Atl

    Easy response to this – tax these churches. I'll sign the forms officially requesting IRS investigation; whose with me?

    October 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • truth be told

      About 1% of the people , folks like pansies and so called atheists who couldn't muster enough support to elect a dog catcher in the smallest precinct in America. If all the morons screaming separation here and all their friends and family got behind an initiative there would not be anything as impressive as a celebrity fart on dancing with the stars.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • MDAT

      If separation wouldn't be a law we would be having the inquisition.So stop being illogical.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  12. Bhawk

    So where is the line between a political movement and taking donations and a religion. Personally churches should be taxed. Another idea is just ordain your self, or go to universal life. com. create a church which can be in your home, donate all your salary to the church and you reduce your taxes and as the leader of the church who takes no salary you pay no taxes. We could make all religions prove they are the correct and only true religion.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  13. victory

    I find this post very revealing of what is wrong with Christianity today. We forget the basic principles of our belief and we rant hate and spew disdain. These pastors are so far away from the heart of God. In the days of Jesus He encountered so many pastors like these; they were called 'Pharisees'. They hated the truth and poured scorn on Jesus. I am a believer and don't condone abortion or else. And yet I resit judging people. I am no judge and jury. Let us follow God. let us leave things to God. God knows what he is doing. And to add; these people who call themselves Christians, will never tell you what is happening in their closet. They won't tell you the enormous sins they commit everyday. they have a plank; they point to others speck. let us get off our high horse; annd repent as Christians. That is the best way to go! Stop judging all those others – look at your life first!

    Another thing, did God tell you to endorse one or the other? Why will you lead people into error all because of your views! Why will you rebel agaist the goverment and think it is okay? The Bible says respect those in authority. I find it hard that Christians are so ready to pour scorn on the same scripturs they pretend to defend.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Bhawk

      Thought Jesus said "give unto Ceasar what is Ceasar's and give unto the Lord what is the Lord's". Of course Jesus said a lot of things all the churches ingnor. No a single true religion here.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Thomas worthy

      Could not have said any better. God bless President Obama and his family. Obama 2012!

      October 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  14. NoTags

    As a Christian I fail to understand how a pastor of a Christian Church could even think about endorsing Mitt Romney for POTUS.

    Mitt Romney's LDS cult only believe the Bible, if in their opinion, it is "translated" correctly by their prophet. The Bible is the devine, inspired word of God and needs no LDS "translation". Also, the Bible does not need to be supplemented by the book of mormon, doctrine and covenants or pearl of great price.

    The LDS Church believes that salvation is not attainable outside the LDS Church and all other denominations are an abomination. Bruce R. McConkie who member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS church once made this statement; "If it had not been for Joseph Smith and the restoration there would be no salvation There is no salvation outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" (Mormon Doctrine p.670) by Bruce R. McConkie.

    The LDS church was founded by a false prophet and is still controlled by false prophets and teachers since they teach a gospel different from what the Bible teaches. The Apostle Paul summed this up very well in his epistle to the Christians of Galatia; "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed." Galatians 1:8 (KJV)

    October 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Bhawk

      Agreed but even Paul is a fake Christian.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  15. ug

    To heck with the IRS...vote Romney.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  16. Bill

    At least when Big Bird takes taxpayer money, he doesn't abuse it and stick his beak in politics where it doesn't belong. Tax-exempt status for religious organizations cost us $71 billion a year in lost revenue, and these morons have the nerve to bite the hand that feeds them by deliberately breaking the law?!? There needs to be penalties for this. First offense, you lose tax exempt status for two years. Second offense, five years. Third offense, ten years. Any other offense, you lose it for life.

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

      @sillybill
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • .

      -nope is a dope

      October 5, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • nope

      @.
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Bill

      Typical Republican. No ideas and always the party of no, as in NO use to America.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • nope

      @bill
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  17. Vic of New York

    The best way to respond to Religious extremists mixing with politics is to get rid of ALL tax exemptions for Religious organizations. Hell even Mitt Romney should be FOR eliminating THAT "exemption" ! ! !

    Oh.... That's right. Romney likes to hide behind his Mormon Church to hide HIS tax deductions,,,,

    October 5, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • nope

      @vic...
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  18. Jim Charlotte

    It's no wonder that people are leaving churches in droves and the number of religiously unaffiliated people in the United States is higher than it's ever been and rapidly climbing. Churches have become nothing more than propaganda mouthpieces for the Republican party so I have no use for them. I'm glad I gave up Christianity after 20 years.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • truth be told

      You were never a Christian in the first place so the transition to full time loser would have been easy for you. But then easy is what you are all about.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:15 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 3:16 pm |
    • MDAT

      HI tbt.Going to start throwing anger?

      October 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • truth be told

      Truth is never anger.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • MDAT

      Heh.Truth without proof is blindness.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • truth be told

      Truth is proof

      October 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • MDAT

      You need proof to make it true.Otherwise I cannot argue with a liar.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things

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

      please name what it changes?

      tell me something tangible that comes from prayer

      October 5, 2012 at 3:13 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 3:14 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!!/

      October 5, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  20. jsld

    This is silly. STFU and pay your taxes like any other business.

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

      @jsin
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 3:13 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.