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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. simp

    None of this would be going on if someone other than President Obama was in office. These people are so full of hate that now the so called pastors are out politicking. I hope most of the congregration won't support these devil worshippers.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Butter

      So, these so called "Christians" would rather have a President who specifically is NOT a Christian, but is, in fact, a member of a cult. The religious leaders would not know Jesus Christ if He walked in their door with a name tag on. Perhaps their congregations should read "Under the Banner Of Heaven" by respected author Jon Krakauer. 'Might give a bit of insight into Mitt and his gang...

      October 5, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  2. PacificNW1951

    PLEASE IRS, call their bluff! The country needs an additional revenue stream. If these churchs want to break the law then let them pay the price.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  3. Where is your god now?

    A 17 month old boy who had cooking oil, heated in a frying pan, poured on his genitals as well as beaten to the point of sustaining spinal injuries is recovering, but the extent of his injuries and whether or not he’ll be able to walk again have not yet been reported.

    Where is your god now?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  4. trekie70

    We should all demand that the IRS investigate these churches. There is no "bureaucratic uncertainty" for the IRS, just a lack of will.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  5. therealpeace2all

    FROM THE ARTICLE:

    " 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 consti-tutionality.

    “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 unconst-itutional.”

    -------------------------------------------------

    So... they are basically daring the U.S. Government to do something about it. O.K. IRS... do something about it. If they want a fight in court, let's do it... and while you're at it, take away their 'tax exempt' status... see how they like it then.

    After that... they can say whatever they want.

    Peace...

    October 5, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  6. Darw1n

    Fine and imprison these pastors. Revoke the tax exempt status of these churches. Then take all their followers to the zoo to feed the lions.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  7. Planner922

    Charge the Pastor and the Deacons, or whatever the Governing Organization of that particular Church is with violating the law. Additionally, I believe the organizations who are facilitating this should be held as co-conspirators.
    This is truly a conspiracy to violate an established law to promote a particular religious belief. It should be exposed as such.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Planner922

      Your whole post agreed and well said, and especially like this part of your posting:

      " This is truly a conspiracy to violate an established law to *promote a particular religious belief*. It should be exposed as such. "

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  8. yep

    @nope

    Someone has a bit too much time on their hands. Maybe you are one of the 47% that don't have a job?

    It's always fascinating to see mental disease manifest...

    October 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  9. Where is your god now?

    You are at the Museum of Modern Art with a date. You have high hopes for this relationship. She is smart, pretty and a great cook. You just critiqued a group of Kevin Appel paintings when you felt a sudden urge to relieve your bowels. But where is the bathroom? Too late. And it is loose. You drag your smelly self to the elevator; she is behind you but gagging...

    Where is your god now?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  10. DownInIt

    They won't stop until we become a theocracy like in Iran.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  11. hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

    Tax exemption is for those speaking of truth absolute, GOD, not for pygmies, self centered, spewing hinduism absurdity of hinduism, denial of truth absolute by use and abuse of word GOD, truth absolute. hindu Mithra ism savior ism Christian Churches, dungeon of hinduism, illegality based on sign of hindusim, racism Cross do not deserve any break for violating truth absolute GOD, foundation of American Const tution, but to be shut down for violating American Law's against hinduism, racism. For more visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word Choice on website to open file.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  12. BillyD1953

    These pastors don't get it. They can say whatever they want to in their church, but if they become a political organization then they lose their tax exempt status as a religious organization. It's that simple. They can choose but they can't be both. This has nothing to do with religious freedom. It's simply a matter of them trying to demand tax exemption as a political organization. They cannot and I hope very much that they don't get away with it. My contributions to a candidate are not tax exempt. Why should theirs be!

    October 5, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • redlace

      Well said. I absolutely agree.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    October 5, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • 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 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Lynda

      ACTION changes things. Prayer does nothing but waste time.
      Atheism is the only healthy choice for children. You must be delusional.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • profbam

      Wrong!

      October 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • BillyD1953

      Atheism or agnosticism is not a choice I made. I was raised Christian and in my teens, over 40 years ago, I stopped believing. I am no more able to believe in God than you are able to stop believing in God. Belief or non-belief is not a choice we make. We're all different. Some of us find religious faith a natural and inevitable thing, while others find it virtually impossible. I'm not the sort of person who is capable of simply believing in something dogmatically.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  14. Chicagoan

    Video tape it and send it to the IRS.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  15. Lynda

    Fine. Break the law. And hopefully lose your tax exempt status. This needs to happen anyway.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • nope

      @ly...
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  16. Gingeet

    Yeah, lets tax them! It's about time they pay their share! They get away with murder or worse in some cases!
    Let them put their money where their mouth is once and for all!

    October 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • nope

      @gin...
      nope

      October 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  17. Blessed are the Cheesemakers

    If endorsing poitical candidates is so important to these churches I would think they would willingly give up their tax exempt status to do so.

    Tax all churches and then this issue is moot.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  18. James

    Separation of church and state should work both ways. The church stays out of politics, and the state stays out of religion. Let people make up their own minds instead of forcing them to vote one way or the other because some pastor or regliious body feels one way. Churches should lose their IRS tax benefits if they cross the line. This country was founded on the belief on the belief of freedom from religious persecution. But when a religious group uses its influence to affect government, that religions ideas, ideals, and values are forced on the rest of us, whether we agree or not.

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

      I agree, but it is easy to see that government started this fight first by invading the religious freedoms of others with government mandates forcing the providing of contraception and abortion. So, now the fight is on. But, Obama is a Christian so I am sure the Rev Wright will step right up and support Obama during all of this.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Saboth

      "contraception and abortion" Er...insurance does not cover abortion. It should cover contraception because many, many women are on contraceptives not to prevent birth, but for health purposes like control of cysts, etc.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • iminim

      Religion invaded government long before the current debates over abortion & contraception. It dates back to the late 18th & early 19th century as our government was forming. There have always been people who wanted the government to legislate people's behavior to fit the religious restrictions of their day (blue laws, adultery laws, interracial marriage laws, sodomy laws, etc). Some of these old laws still exist on our books but few are enforced because our society has developed different opinions about those morality issues & has shifted focus to others ( gay marriage, abortion, contraception, etc.).

      October 5, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "I agree, but it is easy to see that government started this fight first by invading the religious freedoms of others with government mandates forcing the providing of contraception and abortion"

      sorry but the religions started it by getting involved in businesses. If they were not then nothing the government did with regards to employee rights would have affected them

      October 5, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  19. Don

    This pastor needs to sit down and really read his Bible. I can't understand how someone who professes to believe in the Bible will lead his congregation in contemp of the teachings. The bible forwarns not to get involded with the evils of politics. He is leading his people to be judged at the final hour

    October 5, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  20. joejeffrey

    What incredible hypocrisy! They want to be a political group and do it tax free, and they say call themselves "Alliance Defending Freedom!" They are totally free to sermonize about right and wrong in their churches, control their church members' lives in the church and their private lives. And they're free to campaign for the politician of their choice. But campaigning is not sermonizing, and is not the exercise of religion. They want a free ride - I guess that's the "freedom" they're defending. Disgusting.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:20 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.