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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. WASP

    i say let them have at it, but they can't start crying when politics starts telling them how to run business.
    old saying "what's good for the gose is good for the gander."

    October 8, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Or in the language of the religious, Do unto others as you would have them do unto to you!

      October 8, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  2. ElmerGantry

    nope stated,

    ___________________________

    nope
    @elmer fudds...
    nope

    October 8, 2012 at 4:47 am | Report abuse |

    ___________________________

    Do into others as you would have them do unto you!

    I guess nope wants people to respond in the same manner as he/she dishes it out.

    So be it dopey nopey.

    October 8, 2012 at 8:04 am |
  3. Jules

    Well, if all these preachers were honest, instead of hypocrites, as Jesus rightly called them, they'd get Satan (the IRS and government) out of their "church" and drop the license (permission from their STATE god) to do business in the STATE and the 501(c)(3) STATUS. Then they could say what they want. But they're more interested in the Jew's god (Mammon – MONEY), than the real Creator of the Universe, aren't they?

    October 8, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  4. Just a thought

    If they want to violate the agreement, simple as that they should just get their tax exemption removed. A church may be exempt from tax, but that's by agreement, and when you void your end of the agreement, you shouldn't get the benefits the agreement provides.

    October 8, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  5. Get it today

    Here's how things would work better:
    Religious believers should remember that they, as well as their religious expressions, are subject to all of our laws here in the United States. You do not have the right to overthrow our government with your particular religious beliefs. That's treason.
    Simply follow all of our laws and do not violate the rights of others to equal protections and freedoms. It doesn't matter what you want, your private religious desires should never violate our laws, no matter how small you think these laws are compared to your religious beliefs in your own head.
    This country was founded on equal rights for all citizens to live equitably with equal freedoms and equal protections and limitations. Our government is supposed to represent all citizens, not just your local church. Got it?

    October 8, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • Snopes concurs that...

      Get It Today is more intelligent than nope or truth be told or any other religious troll...finally someone (Get It Today) gets it correct, proving not everyone is brainwashed and stupid

      October 8, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Exactly, Get it today "gets it".

      It really is that simple.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  6. Stan

    When a conservative Pastor endorses a candidate it is a crime (according to the current administration). Where were they in 2008 when Jeremiah Wright was preaching from the pulpit?
    In his Jan. 13 sermon, Wright said: “Barack knows what it means living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people,” Wright said. “Hillary would never know that. “Hillary ain’t never been called a n****r. Hillary has never had a people defined as a non-person.”
    Hillary is married to Bill, and Bill has been good to us. No he ain’t! Bill did us, just like he did Monica Lewinsky. He was riding dirty.”

    October 8, 2012 at 12:33 am |
    • TheOrlandoDude

      It isn't a crime you silly goose. All the law says if you want the government benefit of being tax-exempt, you shouldn't use your government exempt status to engage in politics. You're free to endorse all you want if you want to pay taxes.

      October 8, 2012 at 6:21 am |
  7. DrCole

    So....if churches are to help teach us the bounds of morality...couldn't they teach from the pulpit what political views are within the bounds of the faith??? This is what religion is, isn't it??? Helping to teach what is right and wrong within the eyes of the God they believe in??? Then where does that solid line lay? Where does it become a violation of law? The 1954 law is not clear on that line and so many people have not ventured to see where that line is at. I applaud these pastors for taking this step to help define the law. Better that they take the step, instead of someone else take the step and define religious freedoms for them.

    October 8, 2012 at 12:18 am |
  8. mama kindless

    Isn't history interesting? I just love how much we can learn now compared to when I was a little girl – before computers.

    Anyway – every once in a while someone on these boards will try to convince you that the founding fathers of the U.S. were Christian and that our country was founded on Christianity. Well, we know that several of the important ratifiers and even designers of our Const!tution were Deists – some of them attending Christian church, and some, not so much. The important thing is that the designers and ratifiers of the Const!tution felt it was very important for there to be a separation of church and state. And although they didn't call it as such in the First Amendment, the language of that text and their other writings are pretty clear. Here are some of my favorite writings from some of the key founders of our country.

    James Madison (deist who sometimes attended Anglican church) (our 4th President, he is hailed as the Father of the Const!tution)

    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, supersti tion, bigotry, and persecution. A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, 1785

    Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects? A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of VA, 1795

    Thomas Jefferson (deist)(our 3rd President, he was the key author of the Declaration of Independence)

    Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.
    We have solved ... the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.

    speech (as POTUS) to the Virginia Baptists (1808)

    Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802)

    U.S Senate

    As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion;
    from Article 11 of its treaty ratified with Tripoli in 1797

    I also like to include something President John F Kennedy said on Sept. 12, 1960:

    I believe in an America where the separation of

    October 7, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • mama kindless

      church and state is absolute

      This goes at the end of my post. (the end of Kennedy's quote)
      I wrote it first and then copied, but didn't cut and paste quite correctly.

      October 7, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
    • mama kindless

      Just to clarify – President Kennedy's quote occurred just before he was elected.

      October 7, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • OTOH

      mama,

      I guess you could restate it as "U.S. Senator and future president John F. Kennedy..." for sometimes silly purists like me!

      October 7, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
  9. WOT

    The Pope will not have to pay any taxes, he lives in his own country. Read between the lines.

    October 7, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  10. Sunny

    I say let them speak about whatever they like, and let them pay taxes as well.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    October 7, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • Scott

      The only thing prayer changes is your own feelings. It has nothing to do with what your praying for.

      October 7, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but your assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. The degree to which your assertions may represent truths is 0.0. To help you understand the degree to which your assertions may represent truths, I will access my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE). Using my IEE module, the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society
      ...........

      October 7, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • ElmerGantry

      Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things stated once again and again and again over and over, 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 (your claim) and this horrific practice is still going on, 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 10:31 pm |
    • ElmerGantry

      @hal 9001.

      Your correct except for one point. There is no need to be sorry.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • nope

      @elmer....
      nope

      October 8, 2012 at 4:46 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      @nope,

      nope to thenope troll

      October 8, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!".

      October 10, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  12. drbob66

    This is so not about religion freedom. This is about power and oppression. Christians are mad because people disagree with them and so they must try harder to oppress us. They are working hard to take away freedoms, to turn us into another Iran and that should scare everyone, even Christians.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • nope

      @drb...
      ?
      nope

      October 7, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • snopes says

      nope to nope

      October 7, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • ElmerGantry

      nope to nope

      October 7, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
    • ElmerGantry

      Exactly right. It is about $$$, power and control.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
    • nope

      @elmer fudds...
      nope

      October 8, 2012 at 4:47 am |
  13. drbob66

    Then take away their tax exempt status. Please don't let religion take over our government. The arrogance of these Christians amazes me.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • nope

      @drb...
      nope

      October 7, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • snopes says

      nope to nope

      October 7, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • Stan

      It seems strange to me that no one was upset when Jeremiah Wright was endorsing Obama from the pulpit in 2008, but when a Pastor opposes Obama it suddenly becomes a crime.

      October 8, 2012 at 12:27 am |
  14. SusieTX

    Wow, I guess the Johnson Amendment doesn't apply to southern churches (specifically Texas). The churches I have attended the past 30 years have ALL preached from the pulpit on who you must vote for, and they are indeed republican.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      It probably helps that all the congregation are Republicans, too, and none of them Gawd Fearin', blue-haired, Daughters of the Texas Revolution would ever think of complainin' to the Federal Gummit!

      October 7, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  15. drp146

    Give me freedom FROM religion. Absolute separation of church and state. Revoke their tax exempt status.

    October 7, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • drbob66

      Agreed!

      October 7, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • nope

      @drp...
      nope

      October 7, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Scott

      The only thing prayer has given us is the Non-Profit take over of our goverment.

      October 7, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Stan

      Jeremiah Wright- 2008 (From the pulpit of Obamas church)
      “Barack knows what it means living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people,” Wright said. “Hillary would never know that. “Hillary ain’t never been called a n****r. Hillary has never had a people defined as a non-person.”

      :

      “Hillary is married to Bill, and Bill has been good to us. No he ain’t! Bill did us, just like he did Monica Lewinsky. He was riding dirty.”

      October 8, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • Snopes concurs that...

      nope's right to live in America should be revoked

      October 8, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  16. Carol Piza

    Well, it is a good thing the person being interview went into journalism and not a MATH relate field. He stated that the law had been on the books since 1954, "over 60 years"... Wow. I "arrived" the same year and I am only 58!!!!
    Good grief!

    October 7, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Scott

      Math or science is not a big part of what hard core religious people seem to care about. It seems they run the other way when facts are places in front of them. Its alot like the republican party, the party of fiction and lying for the l0rd.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  17. Thomas

    Well the way i see it there is a very simple solution to the issue, any church who's pastor violates the rules has its tax exempt status removed. Just do it, no lengthy legal process costing millions of taxpayers dollars. Send a strong message religion has no place in public life and should never be allowed to influence important national matters.

    October 7, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • drbob66

      I couldn't agree more but our government is afraid of religion so they won't do a darn thing unfortunately.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • ElmerGantry

      @drbob66,

      Sad to say, but you are correct at least for awhile. Even though "there shall be no religious test for office", no current politician has the backbone to run for high office without the obligatory "god bless" phrase.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
  18. johnalbertini

    He can say whatever unchristian hate he wants to spout. The his donors will have to use TAXABLE income to support his hate! That is what is called separation of church and state. He has freedom of belief. WE have freedom from supporting him by allowing tax deductions that support his religion and hate!!!

    October 7, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  19. WOT

    God's law is one thing and man's law is another. We are to abide by both according to God's word. Romney=WWIII !

    October 7, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • End Religion

      god's law and the abrahamic god itself is non-existent.

      October 7, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • John Berry

      All Pastors are hypocrites.

      October 7, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  20. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    Well, from the lead-in, I thought our pastor was going to do this, but he only did it as a teaser. No candidates, issues or other stuff mentioned.

    October 7, 2012 at 3:11 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.