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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. Lennon Was Right

    Sounds like they're gonna party like it's 1699...

    October 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  2. coloradom

    So are other non-profit organizations like Planned Parenthood allowed to endorse a political candidate? If so, then churches should be allowed also. I don't see any reason why a non-profit can't endorse a candidate. The church can endorse a candidate just as any other non-profit can endorse a candidate.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Visitor

      Right. When non profits endorse they have a separate unit and all funds to that unit are TAXABLE and so are the donations. So churches can separate out their funds, and create the political units just like every other non profit.

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

    The stupid will inherit the earth.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  4. SoldierOfConscience

    Killing unborn humans = bad

    October 5, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Birth Controll

      Yes, you're right. So do so very many religious types fight so hard against birth control?

      October 5, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  5. jarhead4life

    Its time to end the bs tax exempt status for all religious organizations. Any organization that preaches the hatred that they do – do not deserve tax exempt status. They already preach what ever twisted message that they want regardless of this law. When a so called 'religious' organization can protest and disrupt a soldiers funeral – then its far time that they all lose the tax exemptions.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  6. OnlyOne

    Pay your fair share of taxes, and you can then preach to your choirs till Kingdom Come. Literally.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  7. Ray

    The IRS is long overdue going after these politically-motivated churches. It's sickening how often they break this basic rule of a 501-c3. The tax man cometh! Heck, perhaps we could make some progress on paying the bill for the Bush wars.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  8. teena

    Sorry to the churches, but as a Christian who attends church regularly, I DO NOT want my pastor to tell me how to vote. If he/she did that then I would find a new church. I continue to believe that we need a DISTINCT separation between church and state and will advocate for taxing any church that breaks its exemption status by preaching rfrom the pulpit. I do NOT want to live in a theocracy and suggest that those who d move to the Middle East where theocracy is practiced!

    October 5, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  9. Daniel Greco

    The churches are always preaching about "responsibility" yet they don't even meet the minimal responsibility to the communities they function in by paying taxes. They use public space, fire protection, police protection, etc. and have the public pay for it. If they wish to be in "this world" they should pay their own way like the rest of us who have to deal with reality. Let them do what they tell others to do when they need money for bills that they can't afford – pray for it. When they want money they ask you for it!

    October 5, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  10. Richard Thomas

    Unlike many here I have no personal agenda against organized religion, however rules are rules. If they want to maintain a tax free status they must abide by them, otherwise pull the tax exempt status of any church that violates the rules. By not doing so, the government is not being fair to the churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples, that do abide by the rules.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • lgm68m

      This looks like the old hippy Civil Disobedience tactic, they want irs to attack in Court so they can challenge them in Federal Court,
      not a bad idea, either way the Johnson amendment should be struck down, the rev Wright preaches hate and politics perhaps he should loose his tax exempt status.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  11. Scholar

    It is time for the electorate to revisit the freedom of religion and the corresponding separation of church and state and remove the tax protections of political organizations masquerading as places of worship.

    Anyone who is a taxpayer in the US can have standing to challenge churches who violate federal law, in that they are being hurt by the lack of tax revenues from these political organizations.

    There are limits on the protections offered to organizations found to be charities under federal law, and when those charities step beyond the allowed boundaries, it is time to act to strike down their charitable status for the current tax year and then make them apply for a new status in the future under federal law.

    The application for charitable status clearly states the prohibitions and also clearly asks the each organization to attest to their status and that violating the terms of the charitable status will result in voiding that status.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  12. NorCalMojo

    Whatever they decide, it needs to be applied to every faith of every color.

    I've only seen this raised as an issue with white protestant churches. If you're going to go after one group, you have to go after all of them.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Richard Thomas

      I totally agree, they can not discriminate in the implementation or enforcement of the rules. However the rules should be enforced universally.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • DocNY

      As someone in NY that lives near the Hasidic and Orthodox Communities I don't see them ever get investigated and they bloc vote all the time because their Rabbi told them to.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  13. bill

    Let churches pay taxes, then they can whine like the rest of the one percent.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  14. ...

    So let's see...(Republican) religious figures will be preaching Republican policies from the pulpit, most of which on paper are devoid of any key values their religion preaches (compassion). Clearly Christian in name only.

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

      Black churches have been used to rally and unify the black votes for democrats for decades.

      Now you want to target one specific group because you disagree with their politics. That's not cool.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  15. freddo

    Gee ... what a shocker ... self-righteous religious leaders.

    Yank their rax-exempt status if they step into the political arena. They have no right to expect a free ride while trying to impact the political process.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  16. victory

    1400 pastors! God forgive you all. The reason why many people have left faith is because of all of you. Now it is so hard to find true pastors. They don't pray! They don't say the truth! They create chaos and incite people. They are so proud. May God save His people from these pastors whose ego seems to be greater than there miniscule love for God.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • susan

      amen to you....very true

      October 5, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  17. skyduck

    That is GREAT! Maybe we can balance the budget once the fanatical right wing Churches give up their Tax Exempt status!!

    October 5, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  18. tony

    Everyone else who can speak up already pays taxes on their income. It's the special favor given to churches, and that allows so many of them to be unequally funded to express a political opinion.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  19. t3chn0ph0b3

    They're not regulating free speech here. If your church chooses to become a political organization instead of a church, it will have to pay taxes. You can still say whatever you want. It'll just cost you money.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  20. BH

    And let me add, yes, I agree they should pay taxes anyway.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:25 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.