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. HenryMiller

    I just love the hypocrisy of an organisation calling itself "the Alliance Defending Freedom" has as its ultimate goal denying the freedoms of gays and pregnant women.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  2. TJeff1776

    The renouned Evangelist Oliver Green stated "keep seperation of Church and State alive and well. We don't want government and politics interfering in our church affairs and we will certainly not interfere into theirs".(End of quote)
    The Republicans are certainly guilty of trying, in some cases succeeding, in combining Church and State. They see a political advantage in proclaiming "God is on our side". Multiple Churches also see an opportunity to tap into political PAC monies and ultimately into even tax monies. At this point, the future looks bleak.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  3. Rob

    These religious a**holes want it all. Fine, you want to preach your screwed-up politics? PAY TAXES! Idiots.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  4. Rufus T. Firefly

    I say collect back-taxes on every one of them. Outta help with the deficit, too. That would be deliciously ironic, as many of these jokers are probably tea party types.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • nope


      October 5, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  5. bfdgdfgdfbdf

    Just another reason why I don't believe in Church. and I think they should pay taxes just like everybody else.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • nope


      October 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  6. Dann

    Let them test the law and let the IRA come down on them. They claim the government is regulating their sermons. They're not. They're simply saying if you choose to be political activist you cannot be a tax-exempt organization; not that you cannot say this or you will go to jail. Tax-exemption is not a right.

    I think this is a great way for the religious right to help reduce the deficit; have their church pay taxes. It's not double-taxation because contributions to a church are a charitable deduction.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Andrew

      Tax em!!! Tax them all...straight to Hell!! It will be like watching rats scrambling off a sinking ship..they will scatter back to the boiler rooms, internet fraud, check kiking..y'know the stuff they used to do before they 'saw God'...

      October 5, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Steve

      Agree. We need new sources of tax revenue. God provides.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  7. Robert in Atl

    IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman needs to get a lot of phone calls and mail telling him to investigate these "churches" or resign so a Commissioner with the stomach for a fight can do the job.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  8. DP

    Good coverage CNN. Use the churches preaching against Obama while leaving out the fact that there a lot of churches preaching for Obama as well. What about all of the tax exempt organizations, unions, and so called think tanks that pour money into politics? They should lose their status as well.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  9. jootjoint

    If pastors want to participate in community discussions, then go out into the community to have them. Put down your bibles and help families fight for fixing decrepit schools and make sure every hungry child have 3 square wholesome food every day!

    October 5, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  10. Blessed are the Cheesemakers

    Not to mention the opportunity for abuse, people could start "churches" just as fronts for political organizations to be free from scrutiny. The ministers are not looking at how this could come back to haunt them in the long run.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  11. joesmith

    no different than the Jewish community having some very affluent members, enjoying duel citizenships here, and in Israel, giving millions to their candidate of choice..this johnson amendment needs a serious review..and it looks like it is about to..

    October 5, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      The jewish community can do as they please, as can any other ethnicity but organizations that are 501(c) cannot. You obviously don't understand the issue.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  12. Independent

    Too many churches are formed by people looking to avoid taxes under the religious exemption or are huge organizations with vast capitalization rivaling many corporations that leverage their wealth under religious protection. Churches of today are rarely the picturesque little rural places of worship seen on Christmas cards. They should all be taxed, as appropriate, the same as businesses of equal size.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  13. Reality

    And now moving to the 21st century using a PowerPoint slide:





    Added details upon request.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  14. Mugwump200

    Politics from the pulpit in the US is and has been common since the founding days and of course still is today. Antislavery messages were preached from the pulpit. The civil rights movement was preached from the pulpit (Go to any AME Zion Church or Rev. Wrights for a good dose of politics). You might not like the socially conservative Right's use of religion to influence an election, but don't get all huffy when it's your Sainted Obama being bashed.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • William Demuth


      You are childishly uninformed.

      Many, if not most of we non-believers place little credence in political parties.

      We don't care if you are right or left, north or south, or even up or down. If you try to use your churches as political weapons to force your values on us we intend to resist by any and all means.

      So proceed as you may, but don't be surprised if you find yourself enjoying a few Molotov c0cktails rather than your normal cheap red wine during mass.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Visitor

      you realize the first u.s. income tax was not until the civil war? your slavery analogy is rather faulty.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  15. USA401

    They are fighting for religious freedom? Forcing abortion and marriage on people is not religious freedom it’s the complete opposite.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Visitor

      They want the freedom to oppress the rest of us.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  16. OldSchool

    Take away their tax exemption, and they can say anything they want, similar to union organizations that do political lobbying...

    October 5, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  17. Sly

    These Pastor's should just go back to what they are best at, molesting little boys.

    Don't put no stinkin' Religion in my Government – I feel like puking at the thought.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  18. Gurkhan

    Let them enter politics but then they lose non-profit status. Cure deficit problem if these wealthy opinioned churches have to pay.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • marjee123

      I agree one hundred per cent they have too much lee way. I think we should ALL apply for tax free status and use these so called ?? preachers?? as an example. If they can break the law why can't we. file a complaint with the IRS over and over and over again.

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

      I'm actually opposed to people who believe in magic invisible beings having the right to vote because of their impaired judgement. But if they are going to organize politically, I agree they need to lose their tax-free status. Even so, I suspect what would happen is they would dun their believers for more money that they would funnel into political speech, further eroding the process just as corporations have already done. Except with religion entering politics, there can be no compromise of the type that is needed for our government to actually pass legislation.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  19. Amniculi

    I say we tax them into the dirt. If they want to play hardball let them step up to the plate.

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

      Then this should apply to all tax exempt organization including MoveOn.Org, the Tides Foundation, and all of the tax exempt unions. Tax them all into the dirt.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  20. MightyMoo

    If you remove the ban and open the door for religious money to go in to political endorsement ads, you not only open it up for Bible based faiths like Christianity, Catholicism, etc. You also open it up for Hindus, Muslims, etc. Imagine the bidding war for American politicians that would take place in the Isreal/Palistine conflict from faith based organizations as well as other religious hot spots in the globe.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:46 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.