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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. John Strekal

    The obvious response is, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's". The dear Pastor is mixing what belongs to Caesar (secular politics) with that which belongs to God (in ;interpretation' of Christianity). As has been said in many other response. If this is his wish then he needs to pay the price of being taxed.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  2. teej

    Christians are called only to lead by example. So called principled defiance that will most certainly alienate someone(s) who might be having conversations with God is not how I understand my Christianity. We are no the judge!

    October 5, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  3. Jesus

    Oooooh, they're using the "we're white so we can break the law" routine. People have been doing it int his country for the last 300 years.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  4. PraizeJayzuz

    When I worked one season at the IRS in Kansas City, I was absolutely shocked by how many of these holy roller preachers are rolling in the dough (more than a lot of folks legitimately earn) yet they don't have to pay a dime of taxes. Now they think they can do whatever the hell they want in our political arena? I say these crooks need to pony up their fair share or STFU! You guys know that the IRS has a hotline for reporting tax cheaters... if they asked, then they should receive ... a big, fat, IRS AUDIT!!

    October 5, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • VoxVerum

      As a pastor's son, let me clarify that ministers/preachers/priests/etc. ARE NOT exempt from taxes. Their churches are.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • i12bphil

      Pastors and have to pay income tax. You don't pay attention very well.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  5. GBAZ

    Man this is CRAZY stuff they're wanting to do! Why on earth would the IRS or the government allow a non-profit group (no matter whether it is religious or a non-religious org) to donate $$ into the political world? It makes no sense.

    The Church (protestant and liturgical) and all of those non-profit orgs out there are a mixture of people from all political leanings. Are they saying that once the $$ comes into their bank accounts from donors that the leadership/board members, etc should be able to decide on a whim which political party or candidate should get their money? Just stupid thinking.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  6. Journalist

    When the government regulates churches through zoning and taxes the government becomes god. stop all government!

    October 5, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • pax3

      Anarchist?

      October 5, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  7. Corky Stewart

    I say TAX EVERYONE and EVERYTHING at the SAME rate, 15percent – NO EXCEPTIONS for any one or any organization or any business.
    If you're taking in money, you pay taxes.
    We're all in this together or we're not.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • nope

      @corky
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • i12bphil

      So by your logic all non-profits should pay tax. Stupid much?

      October 5, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  8. victory

    I am a pastor, and I will not endorse anyone. I WILL allow God to install whom He pleases. I trust Him enough to do that. So must these inciteful and hate fuelling pastors. When a pastor focuses his time on anything but the Bible and the truth, and most importantly aligns more with an ideology more than with the love of God – then beware and be wary.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Murph

      Wow...thats so nice of you. So...why do you bother to pray anyway....couldn't you just let god do whatever he wishes? Hmmm...never understood why you people nag Yahweh all the time....he must sit up there saying. Dang those humans are some yappy creatures. Yap yap yap...

      October 5, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  9. jayakumar

    ANy non-profit organization irrespective whether they are a church or a hospital cannot support politicians because they do not contribute to the political process in any way. They are not supposed to, since they are tax exempt. Is anyone surprised that churches are closing down. They are increasingly becoming meaningless in an educated and tolerant country like the US. All these preachers should move to Afghanistan where they will find more relevance for their hate speech.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Journalist

      Are you kidding me? The hospitals that are non profit are reaping the benefits of ObamaCare. These nonprofits (nontaxed) are receiving, not paying tax dollars, from the socialist government you all love. don't you think they have all been involved in the government interference of ObamaCare. If what you say is true than abolish all nonprofit hospitals, thay all have their political agenda and it is being forced upon us all.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  10. Bob

    Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    Like a f@rt in a whirlwind

    October 5, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • nope

      @bib
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  11. QS

    Seems to me conservatives should see this as "religious welfare" and demand that the "moochers" (churches) take personal accountability for their lives....is that about right Mr. Romney?

    October 5, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  12. Bob

    The Xtian TALIBAN will stop at nothing to subjugate Americans.

    Revoke their tax exempt status NOW.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • nope

      @bub
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  13. William Demuth

    The solution is simple.

    Step One : End the charitable deduction COMPLETLEY
    Step Two : Tax ALL business, both those for profit and Non-profits

    Having worked closely with Women Owned Enterprise and Minority Owned Enterprise, I can assure you of a few things.

    All businesses are the same, designed to enrich their creators with personal benefits
    All businesses manipulate data EVERYDAY in a blatant attempt to gain an advantage.
    Money is FUNGIBLE, and millions are diverted to avoid taxes and are regularly misrepresented to the American people.

    The term “business ethics” is the worst oxymoron ever uttered

    October 5, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  14. belinda

    I quit going to the Catholic Church in 2004 , because of their influence, in reelecting George Bush. In the sixties Priests often supported Protests against the war , Homelessness and Racism. What happened ? Now they support People who promote this sort of thing ? Even the Baptist Church recently stated that they would support what was best for the People versus what was best for Republicans. Nuns on the Bus have Reminded me that we shouldn't give up on our Churches, we should, work together to compromise, for the Common Good. Everyone, realizes that helping Greedy Millionaires is not the way to go. Republicans have had 12 yrs. of sponging off of American Taxpayers. It's time for this Con Game to end.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  15. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    October 5, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Jesus

      I took 30 CC's of atheism when I was a child, and we ALL know how that worked out...

      October 5, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • JD

      You know, most god-botherers fail to ever get under my skin, but you are different. For months if not years you have been trolling CNN's comments, parroting the same drivel over and over.

      Never engaging, never responding, just repeating your mantra.

      It makes me want to wipe the smugness off your face. With a hammer. Not that I would ever act on that, mind you. But if you are trying to arouse the baser instincts in your ideological opponents, congratulations.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:47 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 5:19 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 5:24 pm |
  16. 63will12

    The United States offers religious freedom and separation of Church and State, now churches want to start giving money to politicians. It is time the IRS charges these church pastors with violation of the Johnson Act and make them pay taxes.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • nope

      @63...
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • yep

      @nope

      ...yep

      October 5, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • jayakumar

      @Yep: I love you.. 🙂

      October 5, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Momof3

      All religions should be treated as exactly what they are...money generating businesses!

      October 5, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Bill

      Exactly.

      Pastors have the same freedom of speech as the rest of us.

      The price for being able to endorse political candidates is the loss of their tax exempt status.

      They can have one or the other, but not both.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • i12bphil

      I'm sorry, who said anything about churches giving money to politicians. Can you even read?

      October 5, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  17. 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 4:06 pm |
    • jayakumar

      You are obviously ignorant of physic. We can feel heat and cold (one is absorptoin and other is loss of heat), but there is no feeling that is unique to just God. Hence the lack of proof. If you cite happiness or some sense of elation as proof of GOD or healing of a disease, all that can be attributed to other factors, inluding smoking pot (elation), ant-depressants (happiness) or medicines (which would have been a miracle a few centuries back).

      October 5, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Momof3

      Actually, you can measure darkness as a segment of the light spectrum. And heat, or cold is measued as a segment of a thermometer. You're attempting to assign physical attributes to meta-physical arguments, and that doesn't prove, or dis-prove your god.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • youreyesareweird

      odd how you argue one item exists by measuring it from another item's perspective (cold vs.heat).
      But your forgot how you would argue the existence of god from a different item's perspective, so I'll help you:

      god is only the absence of intellect, for we measure intellect. We cannot measure god, it doesn't exist.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Journalist

      Very interesting... what is the measure for darkness, I just looked it up. It doesn't exist. What is the measure for cold? I can't find one. Absolute zero is absecnce of heat. Nope, no such thing as cold. Thanks for the science lesson Rocky!

      October 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Rocky Ireland

      Serious question not meant to offend. Do you have a brain? Have you seen it? Have you heard it? Have you tasted it? Have you felt it? You only believe you have one as evidenced by what it does, read this message. The same as God. We know there is one by the evidence presented.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Nero

      Actually you are right and wrong. People can feel god or at least something that they interpret as god. There are studies showing a part of the brain that can give you that "god" feeling. So god does exist for some people, if only in their head. But it's real enough for them and I don't personally want to take that feeling away from them. I'm no believer myself.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Nero

      So Rocky can feel god in his brain just like he feels the cold in his toes while dipping them in ice water. This god affect that is in the brain is where all religions stem from. I do find that the more ignorant you are, the more likely you are to be religious...

      October 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Momof3

      @Rocky Ireland

      Have you heard of O2? Have you seen it? Have you heard it? Have you tasted it? Have you felt it?
      Me, neither...by your argument, we must be suffocating, then!

      October 5, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  18. sean74cnn

    When a church enters into politics it ceases to be a church and becomes a political organization. At that point, tax them.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • nope

      @sean
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • Bob

      Precisely!

      October 5, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • food

      Nailed it.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Nero

      agree 100%

      October 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  19. jake1969

    Um, this one's pretty easy, if you pastors want to spew your political nonsense, fine - GIVE UP YOU'RE TAX EXEMPT STATUS!!! This is just completely absurd. I'm sick of these rich mega churches bilking the tax payers by receiving services but paying no taxes, then thinking they should get all these other priviledges too. I'm all for freedom of speech and religion. But if you want to be political, pay taxes and say whatever you want. I'm sure a bunch of conservatives will say "what about the 47% not paying taxes, should they not have free speech?" but that would be a BS argument since only the Fed income tax applies to the 47%. Churches get off paying almost no taxes, including property taxes, etc.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  20. GBAZ

    Pastor Johnson says "...communicate from the word of God.” Where in the Bible does it say that societal laws are not allowed to change and where in the Bible does it tell us that we do not have to render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar's? Good grief...Jesus was God in the flesh and traveled around as a spiritual teacher (after all his own Holy Spirit was what moved upon the writers of the Bible, to write, yes?) and was a non-proft kind of guy! But he paid taxes even if he had to go fishin' to retrieve a coin out the mouth of a fish!

    Maybe Pastor Johnson needs to learn to "rightly divide the word of truth" and stop expecting government for special favors from now on.

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

      agreed! stop taking the deduction and believe that G-d will supply the tax money!

      G-d has more than enough if we have the faith to believe Him...

      October 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
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