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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. Nero

    Religion has already played it's part in human evolution. We can all quit pretending we believe in fairy tales now. The most brilliant minds of our time, including Einstein, didn't believe in god.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Nero

      Forgot to make my main point, which is that all Religion is good for now is spewing out intolerance and hate. Christian's are very intollerent and many are hateful as well, which is very unchristian-like. Christianity itself is an oxymoron

      October 5, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  2. Ken in MD

    “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?”

    Because of his "handling of religious issues –- like abortion, gay marriage, and religious freedom." And by the way, abortion, gay marriage, and religious freedom are NOT religious issues, they're legal issues. You're trying to make America a theocracy. We've seen how well that works in the Middle East.

    If you don't like abortions, don't have one. If your church doesn't condone gay marriage, don't perform the ceremonies. But don't force your beliefs on everyone else. THAT's unAmerican.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  3. Rocky Ireland

    If the hospitals that are non profit are reaping the benefits of ObamaCare. Why cant churches get in line to receive their helping? The government should be sending money TO the churches just like they do other tax-exempt organizations. 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, they all have their political agenda and it is being forced upon us all.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Visitor

      You never heard of Catholic Charities? Religious organizations get a lot of tax money.

      Regarding Obamacare, add in Medicare and Medicaid. Actually, just use Medicare and Medicaid. "Obamacare" is mandates for people to pay for their own healthcare so the rest of us don't have to.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Ken in MD

      The difference is hospitals actually help people. They save and help extend lives. What does the church do for the public good?

      October 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Buzz1975

      Huh? Yes, religious hospitals, rest homes, and clinics can and do receive federal funding in the form of Medicare, etc. But churches don't received federal funding.. Churches benefit because they don't pay any taxes on their revenures and that is WHY there is a law that keeps them out of politics.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  4. Evelyn Connaway

    I have no faith in any pastor of any church who involves himself and the church members in politics, if they do they need to have their tax exempt status removed. Each individuals belief in God is a personal matter between them and God – there is
    no go between. No church, no minister, no priest can save your soul, nor pay for your sins. No government nor any judicial system can help you either. The same goes for the rights and freedom of men to vote for the person of their choice! Men or groups of men who try coercing and brainwashing people to believe as they believe by forcing their religious beliefs or their
    political beliefs on others – otherwise they are no different than the group that called themselves Christian in the days of the Inquisition – those many years ago. When churches do it today, they really aren't a Christian organization – they are a cult of people who live off the donations of members and their tax exempt status, all reaching for power and control of people.. God gave all men a freewill and they have a right to make their own choice of how they want to live their lives and only God has the right to JUDGE them, and he certainly gave no one else that right. People, tell these men of the various churches to mind their own business and leave you and your private lives and individuals rights to each of you.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Buzz1975

      Sing it! 🙂 I don't go to church to be hit over the head with someone's political agenda. These pastors...and others...need to remember this one: "And Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were amazed at Him."

      October 5, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  5. Imagine

    If churches are turning into organizations that amount to "think tanks" for political purposes, then they are no longer tax exempt. I refuse to go to churches that tell me how to vote...Politics is not their business.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  6. Rocky Ireland

    If churches pay taxes then there is no separation of church and state. The state is interfering with the church. So, all of you want the government to control the churches but the churches to not be able to control the government? I think that is the very basis this country was founded on, Government interfering with the church.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • jennymay

      No honey the church is making the decision to interfer with government with their endorsments. They can't have it both ways.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  7. CB

    What is not mentioned is that black churches across America are endorsing Obama. This article wants to make it sounds like all churches are pro-Romney and that is a problem. Michelle Obama herself told the annual gathering of the AME churches (the largest historically black denomination in the US) that politics should be discussed in the church. Her quote: “If anyone says the church is no place to talk about these issues, tell them there’s no place better,” She also credited the AME church for helping elect her husband.

    So if the government wants to go after churches preaching politics, they should go after ALL churches not just the ones that disagree with the ruling party.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Andrew

      CB, your post is a straw man. Political figures have every right to go to a specific church and be allowed to speak, so long as the leader of the church does not offer an explicit endorsement (no, as with Romney speaking at a church, having a candidate/politician speak at a church doesn't count, in strict legal terms, as an endorsement). So she credited AME with helping to elect her husband – so what? Reagan and other right-wingers can credit Southern Baptists and evangelicals all they want, doesn't mean that's really what helped them get elected. Besides, the AME's lead council has not officially endorsed Obama

      October 5, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  8. Mac

    This is BULL$%#&. Their tax exempt status should be GONE the SECOND this happens. Take it away. Time to tax Jesus.

    Love,

    Atheists Everywhere

    October 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  9. dsangiovanni

    They shoul be out of politics... for good...

    October 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  10. Buzz1975

    Simple. Take away the tax exempt status from all those churches who won't follow the rules. Then they can pay taxes and that will give them all the right to jump into the political arena. It won't be long before they will then fight amongst themselves as to who has the real "moral high ground" when it comes to endorsing candidates and issues!

    October 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  11. mcskadittle

    church deduction is the biggest one going, we should cut that first

    October 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  12. Rocky Ireland

    mom0f3 -sorry the thermometer only measures heat, or the lack thereof, not cold

    October 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  13. Ken in MD

    Yes, separation of church and state is truly a one-way street. The church can say anything they want about the government and politics, but politicians better not say one word against the church. Nice.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Rocky Ireland

      .The state is interfering with the church. So, all of you want the government to control the churches but the churches to not be able to control the government? I think that is the very basis this country was founded on, Government interfering with the church.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  14. Michael

    Support and donate to who you want to; all churches !! BUT don't forget to pay TAXES on all of those earnings. Churches should have been TAXED from the start !!

    October 5, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  15. Rogue351

    This is Romney's opportunity to clean up the debt, Tax Churches. There is suppose to be a separation of church and state anyway, it's the law. Take away their tax exempt statues. If they can’t play by the rules they are not above the law. This is how it starts. First you have preachers going against an elected official in the name of god, morals, etc. Next thing you know these same preachers are saying anyone that does not believe should not be allowed to live. Have we learned nothing from the middle east in the last decade ? Religion should be a personal experience and not forced on anyone. To counter this the world is a rough place and if your religious and your offended remember, god made the world this way for a reason.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  16. Jesus

    AND THIS IS WHY PEOPLE HATE CHRISTIANS. THIS IS NOT YOUR WORLD. THIS IS NOT YOUR PLANET.

    You may call Obama's policies "unamerican", but you know whats REALLY unamerican and really unchristian? NOT FOLLOWING THE LAWS! How about you grow the fcuk up and follow the fukcing rules

    October 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  17. Jan

    I hope these churches ALL have their tax exempt status revoke. Nothing would please me more than to see rhem squirm when they have to pay!!

    October 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  18. cc423

    They can preach politics all they want. And they can pay taxes like the rest of us. I am tired of footing the bill for these free loaders.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • i12bphil

      Churches are self sustaining and operate solely on the offerings of the parishioners. Please explain to me how you are "footing the bill for these freeloaders"?

      October 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  19. lynn

    Since Mormonism is not a Christian religion, please tell me how a Christian could vote for someone who is a member of the Mormon cult? I suspect the honest answer would be: rather a Mormon cult member than a black man in the White House. That's how racist this country still is.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Ken in MD

      Funny how some people think that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is not christian.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Evelyn Connaway

      This is a church started by a man – Joseph Smith in 1830, with their own book of rules, which by the way they change their rules a lot – maybe that's where Mitt Romney gets his constantly changing ideas from. First it started with a man having all the wives he wanted and all the children he could begat – making more members for his organization and more money for his church. One sort of wonders how this church became to wealthy in 172 years – also one does note that over those years the women did most of the work to support the household and church and service one man in each household of dozens of wives – he had no energy left to do manual labor, so it was left up to the women. I bet the men hated that when the rules had to be changed. They still wanted to a SOLOMON of the old biblical days. Some still do and we let them in the US. The women need to wise up and so does everyone about religion, politics and women's rights as an individual human being.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  20. 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, they all have their political agenda and it is being forced upon us all.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Momof3

      Taxpayers have subsidized non-profit hospitals for years, since they recieve tax-payer funds...why are you just b!tching about it now? 'Cause some black man made it a law?

      All of healthcare is reaping the benefits of ObamaCare...hospitals, nursing homes, extended care facilities, INSURANCE COMPANIES...

      October 5, 2012 at 4:28 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.