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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. Brian

    Religion should stay out of politics.

    or be taxed.

    I say remove their tax exemption status the minute these pastors utter their words

    October 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  2. Rich

    So full of hate...very,very sad...JC would be very sad also about all the hate they are spreading

    October 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  3. Dave

    It's time Churches and religious organizations render unto Cesar what is Cesar's. Take away tax exempt status for religious organizations and churches. It will be a great boon to revenue. Could possibly solve the debt crisis. The Tea Party should be all for that.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Trent

      Erasing exemptions for religious organizations would boost revenues less than 1%, probably less than half of a percent, because average religious donations are less than 7% of income and the average income tax rate is less than 15%, as the Romney fiasco has made known.

      The federal budget, on the other hand, is over by more than 30%. The only fix for that magnitude of spending is to slash social security, medicare, and public pensions before they sink us all and die on their own anyway.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  4. Captain Obvious

    That's fine. If they want to campaign for politicians, take away their tax exempt status.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  5. Frank525

    I don't believe ANY religious organization should be tax exempt. I resent having to pay more property taxes to support organizations and establishments that do not have to pay taxes. Theoretically they then get free police and fire services whereas I have to pay more for that. If they can't support themselves, then they can fail, just like a business.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Trent

      Healthy churches in communities tend to decrease policing costs more than they cost. They don't use fire very often either; and all of their congregants are paying taxes for the community anyway. You or anyone else is free to start a club, call it a church, and as long as it's not for profit and follows the rules, you won't have to pay property taxes either.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  6. woman

    What happened to the separation of church and state? If pastors are going to push one candidate over another, and tell their parishioners who to vote for, THEY SHOULD LOSE THEIR TAX EXEMPT STATUS. I go to church to be spiritually educated and inspired, not to be told what to do or who to vote for. I can figure that out by myself.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  7. profbam

    2 weeks before election day 2004, my pastor announced from the pulpit and knowing that an IRS agent was sitting in the pews that is was the responsibility of every good Catholic to vote Republican. Since I will never vote for the minions of Satan, I left and never went back. So did my wife. The actions of the GOP for years have been virulently anti-Christian and the GOP has worked hard to corrupt religion in America. The Catholic Church continues to push policies that will lead to increased numbers of abortions and limit the rights of individuals. That these pastors have sold out their congregations for a few pieces of silver is appalling.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  8. simp

    @where is you god now comment

    If you are an atheist than say so loser, obviously you do know there is evil in the world maybe you need to look at who you worship and not blame God.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  9. davidmlane

    make all religious pay property and income and sales taxes.. It's ridiculous that they don't have to pay.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  10. Finally

    I'll bet these mega church guys become very quiet if the IRS can tax them.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  11. Linda Mash

    Hypocrisy in religion has forced more people like me to practice my religion at home. I have no problem with this.... let the churches lose their tax exempt status . More hypocrites in church then out,

    October 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  12. Pastor John

    Tax or no tax, those truly harmed by political sectarianism in religion are its adherents. Peace loving faithful deserve communities that practice what they preach: love, tolerance, seeking wisdom, embracing ethnic diversity. Political endorsements turn worship into yet one more medium for divisive political propaganda. The ad hominem that today is directed against one politician is actually aimed at the person in the pew supporting him. A pastor seeking to cleanse his church or community of anyone of divergent opinion may gain more job security, but he does so at the expense of gouging out his own eyes, stopping up his own ears, and ossifying his own heart toward his neighbor.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  13. Bible Clown©

    As soon as they do this, they will become PACs in the eyes of the law. A church near me lost its building and land and cemetery to taxes about four years ago without meaning to break the law, but they had signs up telling people how to vote, so they had to pay taxes for that entire fiscal year.
    I'd support taking away the tax break from every church anyway. I have to pay taxes, and so should Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Elvis, Voo Doo, and Santeria.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • jack01

      Hay i agree with you 100%.All churches should pay there share of taxes.They want to get into politics then pay up and no damn freebees.I get tired of the ministers saying there house of worship and they can talk about any thing,hell it is our house of worship not theres.And the church should not be a damn SANCTUARY eather.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  14. LivinginVA

    Why do I think that the folks who are promoting this would cringe if an Iman of a large mosque were to announce he agrees with them and will also be supporting Romney during his service?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  15. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    This effort to open a new front in the Republican Religious establishment's fabricated "War on Religion" is entirely predictable. The aikidoist in me says to let them absorb the consequences of their actions as the IRS acts entirely within the letter of the law.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Tom, Tom

      Agreed, and the 'black belt' kenpo -ist and brazilian jiu-jitsuist in me and Israeli Krav Maga... says, let's kick their asses ! 😀

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  16. G

    IRS will force their hands and pull their tax-exempt status. USA should then be able to balance the budget in a much shorter time period. Churches are awash in cash and have long tainted the political discourse.

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

      Yup, I applaud these churches on their stance on free-speech and their willingness to contribute billions of dollars to help pay down our deficit. Bravo for them!

      October 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • G

      The only downside to taxation of churches is that they will have less cash for settlements of lawsuits involving pedophile priests and ministers.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  17. seth

    But how can they vote for Romney? Romney voted for abortion! Any true christian would vote for Ron Paul.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      He's literally saying "God wants you to vote for the Mormon Bishop over the Evangelical Christian."

      October 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • kithope

      So Seth, what is it that makes you the judge of what a "true christian" is?

      October 5, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  18. SRC

    QUESTION: Are ALL tax-exempt organizations blocked from intervening in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office?" If not, then there is an issue and churches should not be held to a different requirement. If so, then the other organizations need to be investigated as well.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Jim in Georgia

      WWJD? “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”

      October 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • LivinginVA

      churches and all other 501(c)(3) charities are "absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office" if they are to remain tax-exempt. [IRC 8] Contributions to political campaign funds in support or opposition to candidates are also prohibited, but pastors may campaign as individuals without the imprimatur of the church, and churches may speak out on public issues so long as they don't "devote a substantial part of their activities to attempting to influence legislation."

      October 5, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Yes, all tax exempt organizations fall under the same code whither they are religious or not. It is not aimed at only churches. For instance there is a tax exempt atheist organization in Austin TX that fall under the same rule.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • jack01

      ANY organization or person who claims tax free status and gets into politics can automatically get hit with a big TAX bill.No more freebes then watch the CATHOLIC church CRY,when they have to pay TAXES.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  19. Finally

    I have been saying this for a while. They want to talk politics and get involved in the process? TAX THEM ALL.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  20. Where is your god now?

    Witnesses said that they saw a man throw the infant from the Miller Street pedestrian overpass, but police said they are not sure if the child was alive or dead when the man threw the child. It appears the child was hit by at least two cars, officials said.

    Where is your god now?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "Where is your god now?" Stop doing that. It's offensive to everyone, including militant atheists. Don't make me come over there and clout you with the Clown Hammer©.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      Do not lay it on GOD, truth absolute, man had a choice and he made his choice in hinduism, ignorance to truth absolute of life. He must be a hindu pygmy , Athiest, ignorant self centered, secular.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "He must be a hindu pygmy" Oh, not this freak again. Can't you shut your pie hole ever?

      October 5, 2012 at 1:49 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.