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. Jean2

    Just think how much revenew thus woul bring in from those mega churches.

    October 5, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Citizen

      In most churches God asks for 10%. How much will the government ask for?
      I guess God is a better money manager.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  2. Bob

    "One nation under God – it's on our money, in our Pledge of Allegiance to the United States"

    A mere political contrivance.

    October 5, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Jo

      First Amendment Primer:
      Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black best expressed the purpose and function of the Establishment Clause when he said that it rests "on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion." Some Americans reject this dictum, promoting the idea that the government should endorse the religious values of certain members of the community to the exclusion of others. In fact, such violations of the separation of church and state take place with disturbing frequency in American government, at local, state and Federal levels. Recent incidents include the following:

      An Alabama judge regularly opens his court sessions with a Christian prayer. Further, he has refused to remove a plaque containing the Ten Commandments from his courtroom wall. Alabama Governor Fob James has threatened to call in the Alabama National Guard to prevent the plaque's removal.
      Local municipalities have erected nativity scenes, crosses, menorahs and other religious symbols to the exclusion of those of other faiths.
      The Board of Aldermen of a Connecticut city has opened its sessions with a prayer that beseeches citizens to "elect Christian men and women to office so that those who serve will be accountable . . . to the teachings of Jesus Christ . . . ."
      A variety of religious groups are demanding that their faith-based social service programs receive public funding although these programs engage in aggressive proselytizing and religious indoctrination.
      On the "National Day of Prayer," local authorities acting in their official capacities have led citizens in sectarian prayer.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  3. Silly Baggers!

    I support the Johnson Amendment. Even if the pastor endorsed who I wanted to vote for I would get up right at that moment, leave, and never come back. Stick to preaching the bible and your personal feelings out of the Church.

    October 5, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Rocky Ireland

      Leave your personal feelings outta church? If church isn't personal I don't know what is!

      October 5, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • jb

      Rocky, TAX the church, then they can say whatever.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Rocky Ireland


      then government controls the church. Is that what you want?

      October 5, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  4. Rocky Ireland

    Really someone answer me -At what point does a pastor give up his right to speak? When they pay dont pay taxes? Then 47% of Americans can't speak. This is lunacy. As an American I have the inalienable right to speak. I have the right to my religious practice. These are not mutually exclusive rights.

    October 5, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • ME II

      It's not about the Pastor's rights, it's about the organizations right's. The person, in speaking for the organization, has limitations on what he can say and still keep the tax-exemption. If the organization wants to forgo tax-exemption then its representatives can say whatever it chooses.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Veritas

      It's a condition of being tax-exempt. I'd be surprised if they want to give that up.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • jb

      Pay taxes then if you the pulpit to be polical.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • OneTruth

      There's a huge difference between not paying taxes and being tax-exempt.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • @rocky ireland

      "Really someone answer me -At what point does a pastor give up his right to speak? When they pay dont pay taxes? Then 47% of Americans can't speak. This is lunacy. As an American I have the inalienable right to speak. I have the right to my religious practice. These are not mutually exclusive rights."
      You don't understand the concepts here very well.......maybe this will help:
      Let's say "John Doe" is a pastor and a citizen, and GENERALLY has the right to free expression.
      The "generally" means that there ARE restrictions.
      The restriction that's relevant and material here is that a pastor at a pulpit, is clearly acting in the capacity of an agent of the organization (the church).
      By law, churches are nontaxable organizations that may not engage in political campaigning/endorsing/etc.
      By law, the pastor, when he is acting as the agent of a church (at a pulpit, for instance), is bound by the restrictions that bind the church.
      This is the same legal principle by which a cop or judge, as a private citizen, is free to disagree with some law, but when they are fulfilling their duties as agents of the courts, they are bound by the law and supposed to implement it without regard for their personal opinions.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      I think you're missing something important.

      It's not really about what Pastors say from the pupit. They get their message across about who they want congregants to vote for anyway.

      This is about MONEY. Since (thank you Citizens' United) speech = money, then the repeal of the tax code prohibiting religious and non-profit organizations to endorse candidates would then permit churches and non-profits to not just endorse candidates with words but money.

      So the question is now "Do you want your donations to the CHURCH being given to a POLITICIAN at the discretion of your pastor?" That's what this amounts to.

      October 5, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  5. hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

    There is a hindu GAWD in churches, corruption of truth absolute, absurd.

    October 5, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  6. Abdullo

    I think it is morally wrong for the Churches to question it's members on political views, it is a personal thing.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  7. Rich from MKE

    I support the right of these pastors to challenge the Johnson amendment. I also support the right of the IRS to take away their tax-exempt status in return.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • jennymay


      October 5, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • littleBearFN

      The "Johnson amendment" amendment was only added since the First amendment stated the state basically could not do anything to religion. But before the Johnson amendment, religion could be political. Getting rid of the Johnson amendment will not affect their tax exemption...

      October 5, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  8. Publius Novus

    Pastor Johnson has the right under the First Amendment to say whatever he wants in his church's pulpit. Tax exemptions, however, are matters of legislative grace. What Congress giveth, Congress can regulate. To continue, Paster Johnson can engage in politicking and endorse candidates or direct his flock to vote against anyone or anything. But his church may lose its tax exemption. Let's not go down this road folks.

    Keep the government out of religion. Keep religion out of government.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Bob

      "Pastor Johnson has the right under the First Amendment to say whatever he wants in his church's pulpit."

      Sure, just give up the tax exemption and he can fleece his flock all he wants.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • jb

      They need to pay taxes.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  9. Holyunderwearbatman

    My ex-pastor lives in prison where he gets it in the behind every night

    October 5, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • littleBearFN

      What did he do to go to prison?

      October 5, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  10. sene

    People wonder why more and more people do not attend church. Church is not a place for politics.. PERIOD.. not for democrats nor republican. I hope those people in those churches walk out. I don't go to church to listen to anyones idealogy nor anyones opinion on a specific person.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  11. Holyunderwearbatman

    My church pastor was arrested for embezzling money. He drove a Jaguar

    October 5, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  12. Where is your God now?

    A 31-year-old Kapolei man was arrested for repeatedly se.xually assaulting his infant child and videotaping the crimes.

    The crimes came to light when a videotape was found at a bus stop in Kalihi and turned over to police.

    Where is your God now?

    October 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Rocky Ireland

      These crimes are evidence of the absence of God. Our culture has pushed God out.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • littleBearFN

      What does this have to do about the existence of God. This only shows that the devil and injustice is 'out there' in this world. The real question is, how do we react....

      October 5, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Rocky Ireland

      Absence of heat = cold
      Absence of light = darkness
      Absence of God = evil and crime

      this is how it is relative

      October 5, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • ME II

      @Rocky Ireland,
      If "Absence of God = evil..." then why is there evil? Did God leave at some point? Why?

      October 5, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      plenty of crime here now. You are suggesting there's not ENOUGH God already?


      October 5, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  13. Obamasux

    How can you vote for Obama? You should be voting for that Mormon... This Republican isn't voting for any Mormon

    October 5, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • littleBearFN

      Wait what? First you say we should vote to the mormon, but you are not voting for the mormon? And I take it that you are not voting for Obama. I am so glad you are not voting you twit!

      October 5, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Holyunderwearbatman

      I'm not voting for Obama or Romney. I don't trust that Mormon liar he is a fake and a fraud

      October 5, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  14. MikeR

    The tax exempt status of any church that blatantly gets into politics should be revoked. As well, donations to any church who violates separation of church & state should no longer be deductible on income tax returns. Anyone who needs a pastor to tell them how to think or act obviously isn't using the brain that God gave them.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  15. Rocky Ireland

    I think this is the very basis this country was founded on, Government interfering with the church.. 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? THIS IS THE VERY BASIS FOR COMING TO AMERICA FROM ENGLAND 400 years ago. Yikes!!!

    October 5, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • midwest rail

      You don't read much, do you ?

      October 5, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Journalist

      Looking at history Rocky, as you have, can be pretty scary! History is repeating itself. We better be looking for a new country to go to.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • kingofknox12

      Do you listen to yourself? If anything, Christians churches control the country. And if many of the evangelicals had their way, we would be a Saudi-style theocracy. But that's neither here nor there – the point is your cries of "Christians are persecuted in America!" are baseless and exist only in an alternate reality. Most of us prefer to live in actual reality, thanks.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Ken in MD

      Oh Rocky, you're so confused. The churches don't pay taxes, and yet want to control the government. The comments are that if churches want to control the government, then they should pay taxes. Nobody says that they should pay taxes and NOT be able to influence the government.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • ME II

      It's actually, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
      This differs from 'no interference' in the sense that "no law respecting" restricts the government from singling out religion, either with special taxes or with exemption from taxes. Current law, if I understand it correctly, allows exemptions for all non-profit/charitable organizations, not just churches.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Journalist

      Mayflower Compact 1620 word for word on coming to America-
      In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, defender of the Faith, etc.

      Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country

      October 5, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • midwest rail

      That's WONderful ! Now show me where it says that in the Consti_tution.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Rocky Ireland

      At what point as an American do I give up my right to speak? When I join a church? Evidently this is what all of you are saying?
      I have to choose being a citizen with full rights as an American or, become spiritual, join a church and shut my mouth, give up my rights to free speech?

      October 5, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      Do you even know anything about what you're talking about?

      October 5, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Journalist

      One nation under God – it's on our money, in our Pledge of Allegiance to the United States. Do you have a problem with spending money with GOD on it? Do you say the Pledge of Allegiance?

      As far as the Declaration of Independence it says " We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Who is the creator? is that a god?

      October 5, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      Really? You're going to cut and paste this idiocy like it actually means something?

      October 5, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • ME II

      "Do you have a problem with spending money with GOD on it?" Yes.
      "Do you say the Pledge of Allegiance?" All but the "under God" bit, which wasn't added until the 50's... the 1950's.

      My parents are my "Creator[s]".

      October 5, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Journalist

      Sorry but your parents did not create you as defined by Webster. They conceived you. Your creator is something or someone else by definition.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • ME II

      Try telling my mother that she only conceived me.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Bob

      "If churches pay taxes then there is no separation of church and state."



      October 5, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  16. Ken in MD

    I was in a church once when the pastor was telling people to remember to vote. OK. Then he said who they should vote for. About 1/3 of the people got up and walked out. I loved it.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  17. Milo Whitaker

    Churches should pay taxes if they are going to get political.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  18. littleBearFN

    Moderator: Did I say something deemed contrary to the Terms of Service in either in my last two posts?

    October 5, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • littleBearFN

      ROTFL.. Figures.. This comment happened to BE posted live...

      October 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • midwest rail

      There are no moderators here – only word filters.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • littleBearFN

      I wonder what words they filtered. I used no profanity or stated nothing derogatory... Put nobody down. And my clipboard crashed which ticks me off LOL

      October 5, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • List of banned words please.

      more accurately a character string filter. doc.ument because of c.u.m

      October 5, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  19. dinkusmcgee

    The Fed govt. should start taxing some of these preachers and churches...see how many of them would scatter looking for an honest day's work. I guarantee that the govt. could be back in the black if it taxed the Catholic churches alone and in six months' time!

    October 5, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  20. Rocky Ireland

    If you believe in separation of church and state than only atheists could run for political office.

    October 5, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Delusional idiocy.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Chris

      No...the point of it is so people don't make religious laws and favor one or another religious. All matters related to state should be done in a secular fashion. It's simple. It's not rocket science....leave your religious nonsense at the door.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Journalist

      One nation under God – it's on our money, in our Pledge of Allegiance to the United States. Do you have a problem with spending money with GOD on it? Do you say the Pledge of Allegiance?

      As far as the Declaration of Independence it says " We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Who is the creator? is that a god?

      October 5, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Portland tony

      If the money spends, I don't care if Lady GaGa's" likeness is on it. Get over it man!

      October 5, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Snopes concurs that...

      The Pledge of Allegiance of the United States is an expression of loyalty to the federal flag and the republic of the United States of America, originally composed by Francis Bellamy in 1892 and formally adopted by Congress as the pledge in 1942.

      The constitution has been in effect since 1787. It specifically allows for Freedom of and from religion and for separation of church and state.

      In God We Trust was put on money in around 1955.

      In the grand scheme of it, as long as those things remain in the constitution they must be abided by or as this church will hopefully see, they will suffer the consequences...in this case, tax exempt status.

      Next time learn a little history!

      October 5, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      the "under God" part of the pledge was not included until 1954 during the better dead than red, godless commie scare of McCarthyism.

      October 5, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Poor deluded Journalist. He has spoken of the motto, the pledge, the Declaration of Indpendence and the Mayflower Compact. These things are all very nice, but not once has he mentioned the actual LAW of the United States – the Const'tution.

      Can we find "God" or "Creator" anywhere in there? Nope! Certainly there is a reference to the 'year of our Lord' but that's hardly representative of belief. We have Erasmus to thank for that.

      October 5, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
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