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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. Start with Utah ...

    Okay ... if the churches want to get into the act (of outright naming their choice) ... lose your exemption. And let's start with that gold mine of back taxes, the Mormon Church in Utah.

    If it were a "liberal" group of clergy (yes, THERE ARE MANY OF THEM, including Jesus, the original "bleeding heart"), the case would have been cut and dried and over with, probably within minutes of their stating of support.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  2. David

    The tax exempt status of any church should have been revoked a long time ago. These churches have enjoyed special status while enjoying the freedoms and protection without giving back to the government and people that supplies those services. We must end the special status if churches wish to be part of the American community.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  3. Where is your God now?

    Your husband takes you to the company Christmas party. You have long been jealous of his very attractive co-worker Genevieve, and your jealous imagination suspects there is a spark between them. You dress to the nines and look great. The moment comes to say hello to her. She is beautiful, charming and smells intoxicating. You break a heal just as you reach to shake her hand. You spill your drink on both Genevieve and your husband. They look at each other and giggle, holding the gaze a bit too long.

    Where is your god now?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Tired of the hoopla against religion

      He is everywhere...there is evil in the world you know. Satan...is a fallen Angel. We that believe in God have faith! We know he is there!
      Here's a scenerio for you...do you believe in air...oxygen? Of course you do because if you didnt, you wouldnt be able to beathe or talk right now...you can't see it...but you know its there!
      I feel Gods presence everyday day because I believe and have Faith!

      October 5, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • CS

      Oxygen chemical compostion O2.

      What is the chemical composition of god?

      October 5, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Tired of the hoopla against religion

      Where did 02 come from?

      October 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Veritas

      Where did god come from?

      October 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Mark Egger

      Actually, virtually all the free oxygen on our planet comes from photosynthetic organisms, especially green plants, which produce it as a waste product in the making of carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and sunlight. in fact, this, in itself, is a proof of evolution on our planet, as pre-existing photosynthesis is an absolute prerequisite for land dwelling animals, such as ourselves, which is exactly what we see in the fossil record....

      October 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Chris

      Oxygen comes from various positive and negative charges that allow it to exist in it's O2 state. Let me guess.....where did those comes from right? Well guy guess what...I don't know, but I certainly wouldn't believe an old book from 2000 years ago that claims to know. Why? Because A. Those people knew almost nothing compared to what we know and B. It's old and outdated.

      Just because I don't know where everything came from...doesn't make you automatically right...and it doesn't even remotely validate your opinion. Where did god come from? You can't have nothing without it being created right? Or at least that's a common argument you people make. He couldn't have just always been there right? If he could have been than I contend that so could that Oxygen molecule. *bow*

      October 5, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  4. David

    Solve this debate the easy way:

    Get rid of all tax exempt status for all churches.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Mittens Robme

      Amen, brother, Amen.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • nope

      @davy
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Jason

      Or have churches give TES up voluntarily. No guts, no glory.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  5. sonny chapman

    Jesus gave up his life to preach the Word of God. So did John the Baptist & many Holy Men throughout History. And these guys feel that they're being "persecuted" by maybe having to pay taxes on the $ they take in ? What cowards !!

    October 5, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Chris

      Jesus never existed. He doesn't appear anywhere outside the bible sir. You are correct though. They should absolutely pay taxes

      October 5, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  6. perry

    i agree churches should stay out of politics, stick to preaching about whatever god u choose leave politics to liars like our presidental canidates they both are no good . im not religous at all but i sure as hell wont vote for romney

    October 5, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      If you are not religious why would Romney need you?You are useless to the US in November and will be unneeded in January. Romney / Ryan 2012

      October 5, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • midwest rail

      R.R., trolling should never be this obvious – or boring.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • stupid followed to its logical conclusion

      Becomes midwest rail. Who appointed you to define anything?

      October 5, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Oh, how cute ! More bumper sticker mentality from the intellectually stunted. Next.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  7. nagrom

    Yes. I say pay down the national debt by taxing all religious facilities. They promote their own agendas and threaten to excommunicate anyone that doesn't believe the way they do. They say it is in the name of God and the bible. Well like Jesus said give to Ceasar what is Ceasar's and give to God what is God's. Plain and simple. Tax the hell out of 'em.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @nagrom

      Yes !!!

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Chris

      Not to mention religion has sadly already saturated our government at all levels.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  8. Ronald Regonzo

    The church as a corporate ent ity should have the same rights as any corporation including the right to free speech. When one party represents good and righteousness such as the Republicans now do it should be freely declared where good and righteous assemble without penalty. Romney / Ryan 2012

    October 5, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I realize that you are just a troll, but corporate ent.ities pay taxes. Churches do not.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      So what. What is the tax rate in the Cayman islands. Romney / Ryan 2012

      October 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "The church as a corporate ent ity should have the same rights as any corporation including the right to free speech."
      Then like any corporation they should pay taxes.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      So I guess your comment means you believe all of General Motors is a Person with right of Freedom of Speech? Well, as a stock owner in GM, I do NOT want them to speak for me. Neither do I want my Pastor delivering a message from the Pulpit either for or against a candidate. However, if he calls me up and asks me to help him door-to-door canvas for a candidate, I may be willing to do so. Should he decide to follow the ADF, I WILL contact our Bishop and demand his removal as our pastor. Period. Bottom Line. MegaChurches have less to worry about than do large denominations with a recognized hierarchy. They have the potential for their entire body to be investigated. That would be a kick if someone from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, or the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania tried this. In those cases the Bishops would exile the poor schlub to some remote parish that hasn't been blessed with indoor plumbing yet, rather than allowing him to jeopardize the tax exempt status of the entire Roman Catholic or Episcopal Churches.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • tnfreethinker

      "When one party represents good and righteousness such as the Republicans now do"

      Ok man, when you say something so completely dishonest, nobody can take you seriously.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  9. Donna96

    I would LOVE to see the IRS take on the churches on this issue. It would probably be the first time in history that the vast majority of Americans were rooting for the IRS!

    October 5, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • nope

      @donald
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Donna96

      Agreed !

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  10. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    I've been expecting a belief blog on this topic.

    Stephen Colbert covered it on Tuesday.

    1. This has been going on for four years already.
    2. The IRS continues to ignore it.

    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

    The movement is growing – and quickly. Pulpit Freedom Sunday had 33 churches participating in 2008, and 539 last year.

    So far, the effort has received little to no response from the IRS.

    @IRS, keep up the good work. Keep ignoring these sanctimonious, egocentric scofflaws.

    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/419723/october-02-2012/pulpit-freedom-sunday?xrs=share_copy

    October 5, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      I don't think this will embed:

      http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/419723/october-02-2012/pulpit-freedom-sunday

      October 5, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @GOPer

      I'm pi ssed that I wasn't aware of this. However, I'm certainly not surprised by this Christian behavior.

      And strangely enough... nothing on the economy or jobs... all about gay marriage and abortion. These people are fvcking morons.

      I will be very aggressively fighting their attempt to throw aside the wall of church and state.

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • prolifereally

      GOP is pro life but then they will cut every program inclding medicare killng life after. joke.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Home of the wackadoodles:

      http://www.alliancedefendingfreedom.org/

      The usual suspects: defence of marriage, anti-abortion etc, [yawn].

      October 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Conspiracy

      The reason this is being ignored is that there is a conspiracy in the midst to make Obama look like he hates religion. After he is re-elected the IRS will go after them. No need to fan the flames, when someone went to get a gallon of gas.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  11. therealpeace2all

    Reblogged this on peace2alldotme.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  12. Norm

    He absolutely has a right to preach his message to the congregation. He absolutely should expect for the folks who absolutely believe in the American tradition of separation of church and state to complain. The church should absolutely lose their tax exempt status. Then he can proselitize all he wants about his version of what is right and what is wrong. Simple.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Norm

      No it doesn't. There is not a shred of evidence that prayer helps anything. It may momentarily make you feel good or feel as if you have done something to right a wrong, but that doesn't change the outcome of anything.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      Except Presidential debates. Romney / Ryan 2012

      October 5, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Chris

      Proof people at 100% willing to ignore simple logic so they can believe in this magical sky daddy.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  14. Chris P

    religious nut bag.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  15. Farrok

    If Churches no matter which one jumps into politics they need their tax exempt status yanked. This is breaking the rules and interfering with the political process. Yank their Tax exempt Status now.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Sid

      Right on Farrok.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • nope

      @fa ggot
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • nope

      @sin
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Farrok

      Yes !

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • nope

      @thepiece...
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  16. George

    More religious leaders who want to dabble in politics. We are a representative democracy, not a theocracy.
    If these churches want to play in government.... PAY TAXES you freeloading bums.
    Why are churches tax free? Why can religious organizations conduct business without paying taxes? Why do they get preferential treatment?

    October 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @George

      Yes, revoke their tax exempt status !

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  17. Zallen

    You want to be a political action committee for Gawd? Great! I for one will fight to make sure you lose your tax exempt status.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  18. Lawless4U

    Wow. It looks we will be able to start paying down the debt as soon as we start collecting taxes from these "churches".

    This is great news.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Lawless4U

      Yes... If we can get the IRS to do their job and collect !

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  19. ROMNEY AND PAUL + GREED and HATE

    Cough it up if your not going to keep your promise! Disgraceful!

    October 5, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  20. Nii

    Believelt
    I am sorry you feel that way because if that person is a spiritual person being a Christian then you have someone who can indeed solve problems with much pragmatism and resolve. God is a helper not a stand-aside-so-that-I do-it-for you sort. If I am not doing anything positive with my life He will not help me by dooing it for me. So please enough of stereotypes. i can never cease to understand why the American mind has to stereotype. Maybe I do but it just does not help learning.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Sid

      "f that person is a spiritual person being a Christian then you have someone who can indeed solve problems with much pragmatism and resolve" -too funny

      Uh, yeah, Nii, that's why our prisons are so overcrowded with Christians.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:45 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.