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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. KARI STEVENS, WNC. INTERNATIONAL ATTORNEY

    Uncle Dan, WHY can Unions (Many leaders gone to prison for corruption) support a Presidential Candidate & Churches cannot, Both Tax Exempt Status. Very few Church Pastors go to prison for corruption or anything. Unions have ruined & corrupted this country, WHY do they get special treatment. Unions are why jobs sent overseas... Wake up America...start thinking, instead of just parroting the Union & Democrats song and dance. Unions do NOT create jobs they destroy jobs in America. All the good they once did, is no longer necessary because of safety laws.

    OBAMA HAS ALSO CRUSHING a lot of the 1% that own small businesses...go ahead and TAX, many 1% now have business LOSSES and will get tax refunds, for huge taxes paid in last 3 yrs, YOU FOOLS...USA going the way of Europe.

    October 6, 2012 at 3:13 am |
  2. Separation of Church & State

    I love God with all my heart. And, I believe God would forgive abortion and birth control before he would forgive those who would let unwanted children suffer from poverty, abuse & neglect. How is it "Morality" can be claimed from the same mouths who would ignore the suffering & oppressed? Jesus Christ is my Lord. Compassionate, forgiving, powerful – he conquered death and forgives the unforgivable. He did not choose the world – much less the majority in it – even though they say so.

    October 6, 2012 at 1:27 am |
    • End Religion

      My goodness you're deluded.

      Morality: Using empathy as a guide for human interaction. AKA, "treat others the way you want to be treated" and "put yourself in my shoes".

      Karen Wynn of Yale has a study showing even babies have an idea of wrong versus right. Neuroscientist Christian Keysers has done research to show that the brain of those who see others receiving pain themselves have similar neurological responses. There is a curve to empathy; some feel it more than others. But it certainly doesn't come from a hateful book about imaginary people.

      October 6, 2012 at 1:30 am |
  3. Marty

    I want a tax veto over subsidizing any church/religion, whatever. If they get to say no tax money for family planning, the I should get to say no tax money for a church.

    October 6, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • End Religion

      http://youtu.be/e__bsqUs648

      October 6, 2012 at 2:13 am |
  4. Debbie

    Let them preach politics from the pulpit and then tax them. It would be a great way to gain new revenue. As far as following Christ these pastors are no more than the Pharisee's of modern day. Judas Iscariot also thought Jesus was the political king...all for 30 pieces of silver.

    October 5, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
  5. Rational Libertarian

    Just get rid of tax exemption full stop.

    October 5, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
  6. hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

    Follow truth absolute God, foundation of American consti tution and eliminate hinduism, corruption of truth absolute called religion's to save American's and humanity from hinduism, terrorism of hindu Jew's, terrorist self centered, secular's. hindu Judaism, secularism way of hindu Jew's, criminal secular's to justify hinduism, illegality around the globe. please visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word Choice on website to open file.

    October 5, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      hindiMithraism,
      The Green Bay Packers went up your butt and when the gerbil of Fluffy's doom saw your brain, he fled, and asked your pharmacist to deliver an emergency prescription of sedation to you house. The gates to the looney bin were over at the Steelers game, so they wouldn't open, but Hail ! Stranger well met, Mary full of grace, and pointy hats. All is not lost. They will kepp researching your disorder. So don't give up. They might find a cure yet. Ya just never know.

      October 5, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  7. suki33

    I remember in the 1960s and 1970s liberal pastors preaching about the Viet Nam War and exposing their congregations to a point of view that was against the government proposing. Some clergy went to jail to express their conscientious beliefs. I don't see the difference here, except this story is about conservator pastors.

    I changed churches a couple of years because I grew tired of a liberal pastor expounding on his personal beliefs from the pulpit and I didn't feel like going through another election cycle being held hostage to his viewpoint. It was fine, I'm at a church I'm happy with now.

    October 5, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
  8. sugar

    So let them speak then start taxing them. What's the big deal? If they are so willing to speak it must mean they are willing to lose their tax exempt status, no?

    October 5, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
  9. W.G.

    I think that it is extremly unfair that these preachers pay no taxes . Religious oganizations in Europe do
    As a matter of fact to support their religious denominations in Europe people pay taxes . I wonder how many
    members these PULPIT PIMPS could count on if this were also done in the U.S. . I´m Christian , A Real One
    and I demand that these people pay taxes to support their church .

    October 5, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  10. Flagship, NC

    I am a Christian, attend church and have read the bible through.
    I truely believe that if these preachers get into politics, that they then have walked out of the light of God.
    If they try to persuade their followers to walk out of the light of God, then they would be punished and cursed.
    They would not longer be pure preachers, but the wolf in sheep's clothing. They would be punished. Their family
    would be punished as well as anything linked to them. All should be aware.

    October 5, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • sugar

      I completely agree. 100%

      Beware the false prophets. God does not choose his shepards lightly and his work is not to be undertaken as anything other than his work. When we make it the work of man we commit to allowing man to create the doctrine. That is not how it should be. Man messes up EVERYTHING. Look how they ruined the bible by taking things out, changing the words and adding their own political messages. (which leaves people like me trying to explain to others where the book was changed by mankind and how we royally mucked that up!)

      October 5, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • End Religion

      you sound particularly deluded. All religion is a fraud. If you suffer from a brand of this delusion, it is no less crazy than any other.

      October 5, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • sugar

      People having faith isn't a bad thing. Sheeple following blindly because a book or a person told them to IS a bad thing. The REAL bible teaches the human condition. It has much less to do with worship and much more to do with personal responsibility. Jesus didn't want to save people, he wanted to teach them to save themselves. WWJD is one of my pet peeves. Jesus would have wanted everyone to think for themselves. Heck the bible even flat out says not to worship in a church. (KJB: Cambridge Matthew 6:6 "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.") The fact that religion has become such a hot button tells me that we need the faith more now than ever. It's the biggest shame to the modern christian church that they alienate WAY more people than they attract by _preaching_ instead of _sharing_. For the non-believer consider it a form of AA. Some people need it. Most don't.

      October 5, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • End Religion

      sugar,
      Religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right.
      @4:10
      http://youtu.be/PY8fjFKAC5k

      October 5, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      "God does not choose his shepherds lightly".
      Exactly. He doesn't choose them at all, oh wait...he chooses pedophiles, first and foremost.When he runs out of those he scra'pes even further, the bottom of the intellectual barrel.

      October 5, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • sugar

      realbuckyball: I'm genuinely sorry you were not informed that there is more than one religion to observe. Perhaps you should invest as much time as I have invested in understanding the desire and actual need for the organization offered by many religions. I'm thrice ordained and still agnostic. I have spent my life trying to understand why otherwise intelligent people need something so seemingly archaic. The best explanation I can offer is this; They just do. You have as much right to hate as I have to love and even though your words and actions sicken me I can still bring myself to pity your foolishness. Blessed be you crazy atheist, you.

      October 7, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  11. Gallows Pole

    But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. -Galatians 5:22

    Pastor Johnson, you exhibit none of the fruits of the spirit. You do exhibit a lot of arrogance, however. Count me out...

    October 5, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
  12. Marla

    ALL churches should pay taxes. They have gotten by with fleecing people for way too long.
    There is a reason that we have a separation of church and state, and these hypocrites are flaunting it.
    I hope that the IRS presents every one of them with a tax bill and enforces it. It would definitely help the deficit.

    October 5, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Angela

      I hope Obama gets his clock cleaned in November. His 2008 supporters are dropping like flies. Then this wouldn't be an issue!

      October 6, 2012 at 12:54 am |
  13. sick of christian phonies

    A priest and a rabbi were hanging out. The priest saw a little boy and said to the rabbi, "let's take him in the woods and (...) him." The rabbi said, "Out of what?"

    October 5, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  14. sick of christian phonies

    As if anyone needed any further reasons to look at these lying hypocrites with nothing but contempt and derision.

    October 5, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • sugar

      The really sad thing to me is how easily it's forgotten that Christ was a jew, probably dark skinned and nappy headed, held beliefs that were more like what we consider to be wiccan now a days and all he ever preached was love. To hear most modern day christians talk he was blond, blue eyed, lily white and hated everyone that disagreed with him... astounding how badly the message got skewed. =(

      October 5, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • End Religion

      @sugar: "The really sad thing to me is how easily it's forgotten that Christ was a jew, probably dark skinned and nappy headed"

      The person you think you know as Jesus Christ simply never existed. In case someone failed to tell you, the Tooth Fairy is fake as well.

      ***
      "held beliefs that were more like what we consider to be wiccan now a days and all he ever preached was love."

      You must be high. Wiccans don't even know what Wiccans believe, let alone you. And even though the bible is complete fiction, if it is any indication of the teachings of a supreme being, then that being has anything but love for you. How you came to the conclusion the fictional character jesus taught love is can only be explained by a lack of reading comprehension skills, unless you didn't read the bible...?

      ***
      "To hear most modern day christians talk he was blond, blue eyed, lily white and hated everyone that disagreed with him... astounding how badly the message got skewed. =("

      If the bible were the words of an inerrant, every word in it would be a fact. Since it is instead the ramblings of ignorant, deluded and hallucinogenic men, it must be interpreted. If it is interpreted, then your interpretation is as perfect and/or laughable as mine. Therefore, if he existed as the drug-indeuced hatefest known as the bible asserts, he was indeed white with blond hair though I insist he spoke with a Brooklyn accent.

      October 5, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • Apatheist

      @End Religion

      You really need to stop ridiculing people that agree with you (at least on the subject of this article).

      October 6, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • End Religion

      apatheist, suck it.

      October 6, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Apatheist

      @End Religion

      Suck it? Really? What a well lettered response! You're an idiot.

      October 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • End Religion

      is there a well lettered response to someone telling me to shut up? Here it is: suck the snotty end of my fuck stick, bitch. I thought "suck it" was more succinct. But I see instead you seem desperate for attention and therefore expected a 3-page refutation of your asinine assertion. I'd rather you just ate the corn kernels out of my shit, you pathetic control freak.

      October 6, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Apatheist

      @ End Religion

      You're worse than the Christians...

      October 6, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • End Religion

      @ApelikeAtheist: Now we see the fruit of my labour. Thanks!

      October 6, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • sugar

      End Religion: I find it fascinating that instead of contributing anything in the way of actual thought you spew hate rhetoric and then claim to be working for a better world.

      Keep trying to make people hate. It's working. They hate you.

      October 7, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • End Religion

      sugar, why do you think others hate me? It sounds like you're projecting. Do you hate me, sugar? If you don't great, because that's a good sign that others don't hate me either. And that would be the christian thing, right, to not hate one's enemies? It's curious you'd bring hate into it. All I did was use some bad words yet suddenly you feel hatred toward me, or believe others might hate me. Like your god, I offer nothing but love.

      October 7, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  15. Ken

    Hopefully, their congregations aren't as stupid as the ministers seem to be.

    October 5, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • End Religion

      Anyone in his congregation has to be more gullible and less smart, or that person would be the minister.

      October 5, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • sugar

      There is a definite reason the position is referred to as "Shepard". =(

      October 5, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  16. myweightinwords

    I don't understand the need to tell your congregation who/how to vote.

    Is it not enough to preach what you believe and let them take that home with them to base their decision on? Or are they that afraid that if the congregation thinks too much about it, they'll realize the love trumps hate, that civil rights belong to everyone and Jesus told them to take care of the poor?

    October 5, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @myweightinwords,

      because this really has nothing to do with preaching. It has everything to do with the provisions of section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

      If they can challenge the tax code on first amendment principles and get the restriction removed for churches and charities to not endorse candidates, it means tax-deductible donations can be made to political campaigns.

      In other words, free money for politicians!

      This issue is a Trojan Horse.

      October 5, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • End Religion

      its a perfect situation for churches. One wouldn't be religious if one didn't want to be told how and what to think. Preachers love to tell others how to act and think. They both would like a reason to promote a candidate and provide money to the cause. Sooooo..... Ministers can be happy telling the flock who to vote for, the flock can be happy they're told who to vote for without thinking it through and are doubly happy to give money to the cause, and politicians are happy t have more money. Everyone's happy!

      October 5, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @End Religion,

      doubtless there are some adherents that would be upset by their donations to the church for doing 'God's work' being funneled away (at the pastor's discretion) to fund a political campaign. They need to pay attention to this Trojan horse.

      The big danger here is that the other non-profits would also have their restriction removed to endorse (and donate money to) a political campaign. In that case, forget Super PACs, every non-profit would become a clearning house for tax-deductable free money for politicians. This is very scary.

      This is presumably why the IRS has completely ignored Pulpit Freedom Sunday for the last four years.

      October 5, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  17. Liz the First

    Any church that gets into politics and endorses a party or a candidate should immediately lose their tax-exempt status. period!

    October 5, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  18. Chick-a-dee

    Seriously, I've got to figure out which European country to move to.

    October 5, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  19. Dave442

    If only they would they would hurry up and break the law. Adding these palaces to the property tax roles will increase the county revenue and reduce the burden of subsidizing their religions by providing tax-free services. Seeing their balance sheets at tax time will tell everyone how well they are caring for the sick, widows and orphans.

    October 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  20. Gopherit

    This ecclesiatical demonstration by Alliance Defending Freedom supposedly Christian ministers appears to be loaded with hypocrisy. They are castigating Obama for issues which supposedly violate Christian principles while ignoring the liklihood that if Romney is elected the U.S. government's financial deficit will increase,not because more needy people will be given assistance, but as a result of an increased "defense" budget dedicated to the spending of money for purposes which have their ultimate use in destroying people and property and expanding the U.S.'s worldwide commercial presence by force. That all is in direct contradiction to what Jesus preached and taught.

    October 5, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Gopherit,

      it's not ecclesiastical but it is hypocritical.

      The purpose is to challenge the tax code in court to repeal provisions for endorsing candidates under the first amendment (free speech) clause.

      Since speech = money, (thank you Citizens' United) this is all about MONEY.

      Free speech for churches means churches and other non-profits/charities can DONATE TAX FREE MONEY to POLITICIANS.

      Don't be sucked in here. This is not about the rights of humble preachers to speak their mind.

      This is about FREE MONEY FOR POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS.

      The best thing that can happen here is that the IRS will do the same as it has done for the last four years – ignore this provocation!

      October 5, 2012 at 8:18 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.