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. Chris

    Ok fine, they have freedom of speech and religion.... but they CAN be taxed. So if they are political, its their own choice.... let them be taxed then.

    October 7, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • drbob66

      I agree completely.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • ElmerGantry

      Exactly correct.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
  2. David

    Separation of church and state are essential, when the religious achieve political power they go about enforcing their views on all others and you end up with a state such as Iran! Bye the way i am religious.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • David Garza

      Do you even know where separation of church and state came from and why it came about? If you did then you may see that your statement isn't very valid. also it is because of "religious" people that the country is in the shape its in. We don't need religious people we need REAL people to stand for moral truth. we need men of GOD.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • mama kindless

      Why don't you enlighten us, Mr. David Garza. I suspect your counter-opinion is without foundation, but let's hear what you got. Tell us why separation of church and state is not essential.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • mama kindless

      I referenced this quote for another post, but perhaps it is fitting to include it here as well for consideration.

      "During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superst ition, bigotry, and persecution."—-A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, 1785

      James Madison was, by far, not the only founder to feel strongly about separation of church and state.

      October 7, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  3. Robert

    Churches who get involved in politics should lose tax exemption status. End of story.

    October 7, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • travelingken

      Robert, I absolutely agree!

      October 7, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Walter Kovacks


      October 7, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  4. Glyn

    Most of us including myself attend Church to be spiritually lifted. If I were to attend a service and was instructed that one political candidate is the moral right and the other is the Anti-Christ believe me, I couldn't find the exit door fast enough. By my estimation Church leaders that choose to enter these waters deserve to loose the Church's tax-exempt status and these leaders replaced because this view represents theirs and not the majority view. As someone born in the early 50's I've certainly seen my share of moral decay and without question my sadness goes along with that. However, there is no turning back to those more innocent times and for these folks to think that it's possible to take us back to the 50's then their reality is flawed. For anyone to claim that they are or they posess the moral compass unfortunately the sad truth is that this particular compass was smashed a long time ago. What I pray for these days are more leaders that keep their own narcicism in-check and remember every second of every day that their role is to represent the many, not the few. Thank you.

    October 7, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Walter Kovacks

      What bible are you reading? Pastors don't have the luxury of choosing there own point of view or going with the majority. Pastors have to go with Jesus views and Jesus rules. Haven't you read about Jesus and all he did. If you like inspirational books and motivational story's that's one deal but if you are going to call yourself a christian and a church goer you are in the wrong boat my friend, but its never too late Just take the word of God for what it is and you shall soon see.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Bob

      See you at the goat sacrifice, Walter. Which knife will you use today?

      October 7, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  5. Pepper Pfiester

    Truly ... I am sick of the religious hypocrisy so prevalent in our world and spreading faster than can be contained. I worked for a non-profit and we would have loved to express our opinions via the political system but we played by the rules and worked diligently for our cause in the legal constrains of a 501C3. Churches of all persuasions have lost their way and lost, I think, their souls. I doubt the IRS will do anything to stop their political preachings from the pulpit but ... I can hope.

    October 7, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Walter Kovacks

      Jesus never looses.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • End Religion

      Jesus never looses what? The Kraken?
      Oh, I see... you're another idiot who doesn't know how to spell the 4 letter word "lose". Great advertisement for religion!

      October 7, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  6. ben anderson

    stop, this is not about religious freedom. They are free to speak about and support any candidate, but they must then pay taxes. Don't let them turn this into another test of religion in this country.

    October 7, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      You are right. It is not about religious freedom. It is about $$$$, power, and control!

      October 7, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Walter Kovacks

      Our founding fathers said otherwise.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  7. Rob

    They want their cake and want to eat it too. These pastors are basically giving their opinion. Will they have a sermon about how Romney's views on war, and the poor reconcile with the Bible? I doubt it. These are the same hypocrites that hide pedophile priests then cry out against crimes against children in their sermons. This is truly disgusting. If I went to a church that did this, even if I agreed with them, I would walk out. I assume these guys are OK if they do the same thing in Muslim churches? So far the government has been looking the other way. That needs to stop. They want to enjoy a tax exempt status then the agreement is that they stay out of politics. If they want to talk politics in church and the church wants to force their political views on their parishioners, then start taxing them. The government is free to start taxing them. You want to see some hypocrites STFU real quick? Get rid of the entire law, let them say whatever they want, then start taxing them and their property.

    October 7, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • ElmerGantry


      October 7, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Walter Kovacks

      Have we forgotten what our founding fathers stood for? Have you forgotten the blood shed so that you could enjoy your liberty today? It was because of God fearing men that you enjoy the comfort of your home. Let us never forget the DNA of america

      October 7, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • End Religion

      Walt, you established you're an idiot, and I know you're confused about the founding fathers as well, so maybe stop commenting until you've figured out what the facts are. Just slink back into your bunker. I know Rush is back from break by now. You don't miss the words of loving wisdom dripping from his lips, do you?

      October 7, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  8. Rev. Abad Perez

    If we are to be Christians who stand up for God, let us then pick up the Cross of Jesus Christ, not our guns, or our political loud speakers. For we have a choice: Serve the enemy by politicizing the Gospel, or serve God by surrendering to Christ and His message of love and peace.

    October 7, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • David

      Some of us have evolved past the need for the reassurance of mythology to assuage of fear. We do not need outdated fairy tales to control and condemn people who are different, we need unconditional love for all people, that same unconditional love that your savior spoke about and that you refuse to heed. Hypocrites...

      October 7, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • TexasReb

      Reverend I disagree. God owns our votes. As a pastor you should lead your flock to vote for candidates whos views are biblical.

      October 7, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Carrot

      You are a true Christian Rev. Perez...I don't know what to call the above mentioned others...Lobbyists?

      October 7, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Walter Kovacks

      Good thing that the founding fathers and early pastor didn't believe what you believe otherwise there would be no america today.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  9. Ralph castle

    What Johnson is asking his congregation to vote for is a man whose religion is nothing more than cult.to all the evangelical chuches in America. A religion that's an abomination to God almighty and a slap in the face ok his son Jesus christ . Their religion teaches Jesus is a half brother to satan, the evangelical churches are an abomination to God, the Mormon religion is the only true religion,the bible is superseded by the book of Mormon, and moch ,much more. Any so called pastor would have congragation vote for A man whose religion holds these beliefs has no relationship with Jesus Christ,run from this pastor as fast as you can!!!!

    October 7, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  10. Joe Citizen

    The greatest story ever told
    The Preachers Feed and lead
    The followers
    Swallow and follow
    It has nothing to do with the bible

    October 7, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  11. sara

    This pastor is Big Pimping. LOL

    October 7, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  12. spanglish

    If the sermon refer to the teaching of the Bible, is according to the religious beliefs and the freedom of religion but if the sermon is strict a political speech they should close the church and ban the pastor, or priest from any church, If I remember well Reagan proposed the separation of state and church,.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  13. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    And now moving to the 21st century using a PowerPoint slide:





    Added details upon request.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  14. E. Powell

    False witness cause discord amongst his brethren..... They are the abominations before the Lord (Proverbs).... These so called preachers stand with them..

    October 7, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Walter Kovacks

      Then i guess you can add Jesus with that group being that Jesus did the same thing in his time.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Walter Kovacks

      Oh and the apostles and prophets too

      October 7, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  15. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    October 7, 2012 at 7:00 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things stated once again and again and again Ad Nauseum,
      "Prayer changes things"

      Earlier I challenged you to do something positive for humanity by praying to stop the international forced sëx trafficking of an estimatated 800,000 people.

      To wit,

      I see your prayers to stop the estimated 800,000 people who are forced into sëx traficking across international borders have not worked.
      Wait since prayer changes things that means you have not been praying to stop this scourge on humanity.

      Why won't you pray to stop this repulsive human abuse?

      Matthew 21:21:
      I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt,not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.
      [A true believer can ask a mountain to throw itself into the sea, and it will be done. LOL!]

      Mark 9:23
      All things are possible to him who believes.

      Luke 1:37:
      For with God nothing will be impossible.

      John 14:12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.

      John 14:13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

      John 14:14 If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it.

      Nothing could be simpler or clearer than Jesus' promises about prayer in the Bible.
      So there you have it, straight from Jesus in the New Testament in clear, simple, and unequivocal terms.

      You are a sincere believer are you not?

      So go ahead and pray to stop all the international sëx trade, child abuse, bacterial disease, viral disease, genetic disorders, famine, and wars. Jesus stated, "nothing will be impossible; So do it!

      October 7, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  16. davidmerrill2

    If this doesn't make you curious about redeeming lawful money, nothing will!


    October 7, 2012 at 4:21 am |
  17. davidmerrill2

    I encountered a rural Christian pastor who was not §501(c)(3) back before I had prepared a Libel of Review template for drafting remedy.


    When the IRS found out that he had a congregation at all, they slapped him with an assessment of over $1M! After filing a Verified Statement of Right and Interest (an early rendition of this Libel of Review) the fellow got all his funds returned into his account.


    A few days later he was at the ATM drive-thru and got a message he had to come inside. He thought "Oh, God! They have cleaned out the account again?" They had restored his funds but wanted him to sign a waiver of indemnity for the bank so that they could not be sued. He called me and we had a good laugh! They wrote letters of apology to everybody who had received rubber checks that week!


    David Merrill.

    October 7, 2012 at 4:03 am |
  18. Jack Suede

    Pastors beware! When you start taking the Word of God and using it for your own personal gains, the consequences will be dire. Once you distort the Word with your own views, you will be held accountable for your action. (At that point the IRS will be the least of your troubles) You have been given the Word to preach the good news of our God and Savior Jesus Christ and to Sheppard his people. Just remember that no matter who is president of the United States, God is still in control. All power is in His hands.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:55 am |
    • End Religion

      most preachers of all stripes are very aware they can do/say anything they want without fear of reprisal from the non-existent god. This is why they are preachers. They understand god does not exist and that they can continue to tell you what to do and take your money every Sunday.

      October 7, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  19. SATX

    I am a Christian. But if I ever start hearing political preaching coming from the pulpits where I attend church, I will look for another church. Jesus wasn't caught up in the political turmoil of his day and even told his followers to 'render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's". (ie keep spiritual and political worlds separated). I don't go to church to hear political opinions. I go to church to worship God, learn how to be a better person, and escape the turmoil and fighting of this world for a few hours. I sure don't need or want to hear political broadcasts coming from preachers! I can hear enough of those from biased 'news' anchors day in and day out.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:23 am |
    • Kevin Remy

      Amen. This must be the model for every church in the nation.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • End Religion

      jesus supposedly said lots of stuff, most of contradictory and/or nonsensical. Try this: leave your church and do not find another.

      Religion is a manmade club like any other, with rules and perks to make the club feel special from other clubs. The club gets together periodically to reinforce the delusions of members. Many branches of this club have dues which most call a tithe.

      You've chosen the club that aligns best with your own fantasy concerning how to minimize your fears in life. You and others in the club are afraid so you've made up a god that soothes you by making decisions for you, helping you feel less alone in the universe, and promising you life everlasting. The various club gods offer perks to induce membership such as seeing dead relatives, virginal sex partners, planets to rule or even one's own god status.

      Jesus never existed, was and is king of nothing. You don't have to be afraid. You do not need religion.

      Deal with the lack of afterlife by celebrating life and family in the here and now. Be responsible for your own decisions. Be kind to the earth and others on it. Forge a path with determination, or "go with the flow" and let life determine the course if you're the lazy type. Either way, you don't need a god or a club for any of that.

      October 7, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  20. white thash

    Look at this pastor he is a CLOWN. Saying that he speak from the word of God ... I can't wait until all false religion is destroy. Ill be so happy that day .

    October 6, 2012 at 11:02 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.