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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. midwest mom

    You know there are good church going Christians that are Democrats. On the left we like to emphasize the giving of a drink of cold water to the least of these is the same as giving that drink to the Lord. Obama has always been compassion to the needy and fair in giving everyone an opportunity to rise to the extent of their abilities. Sorry, I vote for Obama.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  2. John Stockton

    As I read through the drivel, I see that 100% of respondants favor taxing the churches. Looks like these ignorant and arrogant clergy done shot themselves in their little, child molesting you-know-whats! TAX THE CHURCHES!!! ALL OF THEM!!! Or shut 'em down! They're as predatory as the slimy predatory lenders, if not worse!

    October 5, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Fred

      Hey, here's a compromise:
      Pastors won't discuss politics and teachers in schools and universities won't disrespect religion.
      How's that for a deal?

      October 5, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Michael

      Fred, that's hardly a compromise, because we all know that you mean by it:

      "Don't teach evolution in schools."

      You can't teach biology without teaching about the building blocks of it. And we all know that your "compromise" would be one sided as well, because fundamentalist church leaders would continue to attack any facts that don't fit with a literal interpretation of their holy book.

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

    Time to end tax protection for religions. Just think how we can balance the budget.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  4. james gordon

    How can I go into a voting booth and vote fro Obama ? The same way you and other christians can go in and vote for a cult leader .Christian fanatics have lost their minds .-God used to be a man on another planet, (Mormon Doctrine, p. 321; Joseph Smith, Times and Seasons, vol. 5, p. 613-614; Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses, vol. 2, p. 345; Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 7, p. 333).
    God resides near a star called Kolob, (Pearl of Great Price, p. 34-35; Mormon Doctrine, p. 428).
    "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s..." (Doctrines and Covenants 130:22).
    God is in the form of a man, (Joseph Smith, Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, p. 3).
    "God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!!! . . . We have imagined that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea and take away the veil, so that you may see," (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345).
    After you become a good Mormon, you have the potential of becoming a god, (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345-347, 354.)
    There is a mother god, (Articles of Faith, by James Talmage, p. 443).
    God is married to his goddess wife and has spirit children, (Mormon Doctrine, p. 516).
    The trinity is three separate Gods: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. "That these three are separate individuals, physically distinct from each other, is demonstrated by the accepted records of divine dealings with man," (Articles of Faith, by James Talmage, p. 35.).

    October 5, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  5. GAW

    What this article does not note is that liberal churches endorsing Obama will be doing their share of political sermonizing as well. Fair is fair. And I say this as an Obama supporter.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  6. midwestmatt

    Tax the church and let them say whatever they want to. The BILLIONS we would raise would be worth the aggravation.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  7. Viltor

    For 60 years this law was not viewed as an infringement on religious freedom; why now? Because these pastors want to be a political force. This is the very reason we have had separation of state and church. Politics is the foundation of a democratic state and if it becomes a religious issue we undermine the whole process. Why don't they form an evangelical christian party.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • midwestmatt

      "Amen", said the atheist.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • BH

      There are people of all religions who go to services each week to get direction and clarity. And please don't generalize about churches. They are all different and differently run. Only someone who does not have a faith would group all churches when referring to the bad behavior of a small percentage. Religion is a good thing for society as it keeps people accountable to something/someone. If you look around us, you see the result of families falling apart and morality being stripped from our society. We all lose when that happens.

      October 5, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @BH

      How about being accountable to society?! Do you just not give a shit what the society around you agrees on for living together relatively peacefully? All your post shows is that you'd rather not be accountable to anything tangible and actually take responsibility for your actions.

      October 5, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  8. NorCalMojo

    It's pretty clear that this is being used to target specific churches that endorse specific political agendas.

    Black churches and Catholics seem to get a free pass. "I wonder why"

    October 5, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Viltor

      Wrong!! bishops are very careful to rail against government policy and politicians in newspapers, press releases and speeches. They hardly ever single out a politician or say vote a certain way in church. Policy they will denounce but that is not the same as what these guys are doing. Yes some black ministers step over the line and they are usually called out for it.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  9. Sid Pierce

    I told my dad when I was young that I wanted to be a preacher....he told me he'd rather I rob banks, it was more honest. Tax them all....they are mostly money changers anyway.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  10. Easy Fix

    Like said multiple times above. If you're going to preach politics from the pulpit, it's time to ante up the taxes and pay your fair share, church, clergy, higher religious orgs, all of them. All denominations and across the nation. Then you can preach all you want to. Instead of calling everything unamerican – practice what you preach and pay your taxes, beacuse that is the American thing to do.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  11. babooph

    These liars in pulpits are 90% politics & almost no religion-Mormonism has many Gods,they would have to go to the 9 commandments & sell out their faith – AND they do that FAST -tax them all for what they are -private political clubs pretending to be religious.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  12. Macc

    I think the pastors need to read European history. Our forfathers knew exactly why freedom of religion was tied into the seperation of church and state. I've read the Bible many times, exactly where does it say that God's word only counts if it's in our nation's law? Soon it will be a race to see which relegion wins the government. Then all laws will be filtered and changed to meet their ideals. Then they will change the education system.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  13. OnlyOne

    How about we start a "Freedom From Religion" Sunday and collect funds to bring a lawsuit FORCING the IRS to tax churches?

    October 5, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Momof3

      I like that idea!

      October 5, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  14. Joann

    These pastors have to be kidding. Government shouldn't interfere in religion – you know, separation of church and state – but it's okay for religion to interfere in government. This is why so many people have nothing to do with so-called Christianity. We're not stupid, guys! You need the real teachings of the Bible, big time.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  15. OnlyOne

    Bring it on, wretches. Bring on your idiocy and your hype, and we'll see how you pray away the rule of law.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  16. mikes

    Time to get rid of the tax-exempt status churches currently enjoy. Their business is religion, not politics.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Kestraf

      Agreed. Churches should be taxed just like any other business.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  17. john

    You want a religious state? Move to the middle east.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  18. Reality

    Go grt 'em pastors! In so doing, you will simply bring your theologically and historically flawed religion to a speedier end as the "pew peasants" will be given more evidence that they have been conned all these years.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Reality

      The mounting evidence:

      AS THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC CONS CONTINUE TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD

      Joe Smith had his Moroni. (As does M. Romney)

      "Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah."

      Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;

      Mohammed had his Gabriel (this "tin-kerbell" got around).

      Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. (As does BO and his family)

      The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other "no-namers" to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

      Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these "pretty wingie/horn-blowing thingies" to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Reality

      More evidence:

      ONLY FOR THE NEW MEMBERS OF THIS BLOG:-–>>>>>

      Romney is Mormon because he was born Mormon. Should we hold this against him? Actually in the 21st century we should since he has this severe affliction, the Three B Syndrome i.e. Bred, Born and Brainwashed in Mormonism with no obvious change in his mental state which he could easily cure with some rational thinking.

      Obama also suffers from the same affliction as he believes in "pretty/ugly wingie thingies, bodily resurrections, atonement mumbo jumbo, et al. And there has been no change or desire to cure his version of the Three B Syndrome.

      We should be voting for leaders who can think rationally. Believing in angels, satans, bodily resurrections, atonement, and heavens of all kinds is irrational.

      Bottom line: BO and MR have been severely brainwashed in their theologically and historically flawed Christianity and they are too weak to escape its felonious grip. And we will be stuck with one of them for another four years of "god bless America" HOPING THAT THIS GOD WILL HELP THEM ELIMINATE OUR $16 TRILLION DEBT.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  19. OnlyOne

    Pastors – and I use that term VERY loosely – you DO have a right to preach whatever gibberish you wish. However, you do NOT have a right to your tax exempt status. That is a PRIVILEGE conferred on you by ALL Americans, not just your congregation, and the privilege REQUIRES that you stay out of the political arena. I know most Republicans think the rules apply to everyone but themselves, but ignorance is not a good excuse, sorry.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  20. Um...no

    How about this. Prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there is actually a God....or pay taxes. This should go to ALL places of worship.

    And no...sorry...but "prove there isn't" doesn't count. I say let God show up and speak for himself.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      Will you accept the testimony of witnesses your honor?

      October 5, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Rocky Ireland

      No God? Really?
      Can you prove there is such thing as cold?
      Can you prove there is such a thing as darkness?
      You cannot!
      Cold is only the absence of heat, for we measure heat. We cannot measure coldness, it doesn't exist.
      Darkness is only the absence of light. We cannot measure darkness, only the absence of light.
      And yet you believe in darkness and coldness? But you won't believe in a god.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:05 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.