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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. KALOWG

    I'm not going to hold my breath over the IRS going after every African American church in the country. They pull these stunts all the time with no recourse.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  2. no big deal

    This provision isn't really enforced anyhow. Check with the Catholic bishops and the opinions they express... all politics to me. And churches should express opinions, but should also be taxed for the income they earn.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  3. us_1776

    I you don't observe the separation of church and state then you don't qualify for your religious tax exemption.

    It's simple as that.

    Now pay up for 2008-2012.

    .

    October 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • nope

      @us...
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Snopes concurs that...

      NOPE IS DOPE STRUNG OUT ON COKE

      October 5, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  4. nagrad

    take away the tax exempt status of all religious organizations. If they operate as a non-profit let them claim tax exempt status by that route.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  5. NYRepub

    These pastors are endorsing the Mormon Church by endorsing Romney. These are the same Evangelicals that claim the Mormon Church is a cult. Boy to sell your soul to oust a Democrat is something that I wouldn't do. Romney being a Bishop in the Mormon Church may Baptize them in absentia.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  6. John Stefanyszyn

    Separation of church and state:
    ...the state stays separate from "religions"
    ....& the "religions" stay separate from the state.

    So why is "religion" trying to influence the state?

    ....because the first true religion of all of man's churches is the belief in freedom of rights (&freedom of religions).....which is also the first "religion" of the state.

    XES...to serve and magnify oneself

    BUT CHRIST WILL RULE!

    October 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  7. mikem

    There should be no tax exemption except for charities. Charities help people who need assistance and often they do it better than governments.
    At the same time charities that send money overseas should not have tax exempt status.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  8. irene

    Churches have been breaking the law on this issue all along and need to be taxed like the businesses they really are. It was the churches that organized the effort to overturn gay marriage in CA and they are constantly trying to overtun Roe V Wade. Tax Them!

    October 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • mikem

      And I will donate to any organization that is against gay marriage whether its a church or a group of lawyers. Gay marriage is an abomination and I say that as non-religious person.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "Gay marriage is an abomination and I say that as non-religious person."

      if you are non-religious then justify calling it an abomination.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  9. doug

    Let's see – Christians breaking the law? Hmmmmmmm – BUT – I am all for allowing churches to preach and say what they want – and if they elect to do so – they can give up their tax exemption...........PLAIN and SIMPLE!!!!!! Preach POLITICS and you pay a price.....
    Let's see – for those who pontificate about their Christianity – did Christ ever advise any of his followers as to whom they should vote for? NOPE – he said to "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's"
    Too bad these looney tunes do not follow their own religion.................

    October 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  10. indfl

    I'm not going to sit by while some tax exempt snake oil salesman campaigns for the candidate of his choice. Take away their tax exempt status- all of them. Un-American church mouse m'fuggers.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • CS

      It really doesn't matter. If we discuss it that is what they want. Ignore them just like the IRS has for years. It is funny to watch them beg.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • nope

      @in...
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • indfl

      @nope
      Dope

      October 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  11. Sagebrush Shorty

    Can't wait until the IRS tackles Islam.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • what do muslims fear?

      Why not... toss the rag heads under the bus

      October 5, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • aMom

      Great point!

      October 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  12. jeffreyw75

    Easy solution here, from the Bible even: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. Pay your taxes, and you can talk all day long.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  13. Not so fast

    When these groups decide not to accept their tax free status, then they can get as political as they want. I would love the revenue generated by these churchs. Catholic church and Mormon churches would add billions to our treasury. Bring it on Pastors.. you stand in a pulpit and tell fairy tales that make people discriminate and hate... I would love bringing you all into the political picture so that you can no longer hide behind your religious freedom.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • nope

      @not...
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Not so fast

      Yes !

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      You losers can't re-elect the current guy and you think you can take on Truth, Justice and the American Way. No chance. Romney / Ryan 2012

      October 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Snopes concurs that...

      Ronald Regonzo/captain america/heavensent/dodney/just sayin'/nope/atheism is not healthy... are all the same person

      October 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  14. Wally

    They should pay taxes. Freedom is not free.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      Tax the 47 %. Leave righteousness alone. Romney / Ryan 2012

      October 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Snopes concurs that...

      Ronald Regonzo is a troll

      October 5, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  15. DocHollywood

    There's a simple solution to this. If the churches want to add politics to their agenda, just take away the tax exemptions. I'm all for letting churches do and say what they want. I'm also for them paying taxes just like I do.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • nope

      @dick
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  16. Huebert

    The churches Vs. the IRS

    This should be good.
    *grabs popcorn

    October 5, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Huebert

      Actually... it doesn't appear that the IRS, at least at this point has been doing jack sh!t about it !

      I wouldn't *grab your popcorn* just yet. I'd like to see the IRS start actually *doing* something now before this gets so far out of hand that every church is doing it.

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • CS

      The churches do this every year. Nothing new. The IRS just ignores them and that is what they can't stand.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • eddieVroom

      I wouldn't expect to see any enforcement until the "churches" in question file their paperwork covering the relevant timeframe - and even then, not in any particular hurry.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  17. miketofdal

    break the law, live with the consequences.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      Republicans ARE the law. Romney / Ryan 2012

      October 5, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "Republicans ARE the law."

      No, you are thinking of Judge Dredd.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Snopes concurs that...

      Ronald Regonzo is a patient at an asylum for the mentally insane

      October 5, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Snopes concurs that...

      Ronald Regonzo is a patient at an asylum for the mentally insane

      October 5, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  18. wren7

    Then these churches need to lose their tax-exempt status. They receive a huge tax break and if they want that break, they should not endorse political candidates. There must be separation of church and state.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • nope

      @birdbrain
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  19. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    Classic "I want to have my cake and eat it too" from the religious right.

    The tax exempt status of religious organizations was granted as a first amendment (establishment clause) right in 1954.

    Now they claim the 'right to endorse' as first amendment (free speech clause) right.

    OK, they can have the same free speech rights as everyone else – and pay taxes.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      GOPer

      Yes !

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • nope

      I'm...
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  20. cedar rapids

    "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."

    Conservatives encouraging people to deliberately break the law, isnt that aiding and abetting?.
    What part of 'illegal' don't they understand?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @cedar rapids,

      they think it is "patriotic" to break the law – just like the Tea Party.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @cedar rapids & @GOPer

      The fanatical religious are getting more brazen and crazier as time is going on.

      There must be a way to stop these insane morons.

      Peace...

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

      Of course, it's only "patriotic" if the republicans do it. If democrats do it, it's a criminal offense. Because everyone knows that republicans are patriots and democrats are socialists. That's taught in republican 101. Along with birth conspiracies, tax conspiracies, 911 conspiracies, job number conspiracies and any other conspiracy the rabid right can think up.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @therealpeace2all,

      there is a way, not by stopping them, but by drawing attention to their hypocrisy but otherwise ignoring them. At the end of the day, what does it matter what they say in their churches? They preach hate everyday anyway. This is no different. They make it abundantly clear who they want their congregants to vote for no matter what the law.

      White evangelical protestants identify R: 49% I: 30% D: 17% anyway. Their voting habits are baked in. Most of the non-Republican support by evangelicals is likely by women.

      Nationally women identify R: 24% I: 33% D: 37%

      By the way, Pew has published a guide for religious organizations on how to comply with the law:
      Preaching Politics From the Pulpit
      2012 Guide to IRS Rules on Political Activity by Religious Organizations

      http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Issues/Church-State_Law/PF_politics%20and%20the%20pulpit%202012.pdf

      There is a way

      Vote.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:37 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.