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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. DownInIt

    “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends."
    Albert Einstein

    October 5, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  2. MrBeenThere

    Any church that wants any Political say should pay taxes like us common folk. There is a reason for the separation of church and state. By all means enter politics but you must pay for the right, "PAY TAXES"

    And what ever Church I attend had better NOT tell me how I should Vote, God gave me a independent mind to think for myself not some crack pot at the pulpit.....

    October 5, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  3. MBW

    Churches and non-profits should not be treated as SuperPACs. If you receive government support or are exempt from paying taxes, you should not be able to expressly advocate the election of defeat of a candidate.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  4. ME II

    "Johnson,... 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.'"

    @Ron Johnson,
    Where, exactly, does the "word of God" describe what is and is not 'American'? That sounds like the "word of Johnson".

    October 5, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  5. sick of christian phonies

    Make all "churches" pay taxes. That will put a dent in the deficit.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • me too

      /nod

      October 5, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  6. Bayousara

    Take a guy who decides he wants to be a preacher, give him a location to have a church, forget any formal education in religion, be sure there are donation plates to pass around, let him say anything that pops into his head, and you can be sure he will get a nice following of idiots like those in this photo who believe everything he says. And he can make a nice living by pulling the wool over peoples' eyes, and he does. I won't even attend a church wedding.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  7. Rich

    Same churchs that joined the k-k-k

    October 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  8. Where is your god now?

    A woman who punished a 9 year old boy by making him sit in a bathtub while she poured boiling water on him, to the point where he will require physical therapy and skin grafts and a host of reconstructive surgery, also making the boy clean the kitchen after she burned him. The youngster said his feet were too blistered to clean, and then she threatened to beat him if he didn’t clean and finally took the poor child to the hospital after enduring 4 days of excruciating pain, will get only 6 months in jail and will most likely get her child back.

    Where is your god now?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  9. travis

    if any of you guys want to read about the history of the Johnson Amendment, take a look at this. it is on a pro-religion website (alliance defending freedom) but it is a repost of an academic, scholarly article. Davidson is a distinguished professor, so I would not doubt his merits or bias.

    http://www.alliancedefendingfreedom.org/content/docs/issues/church/Johnson-Amendment-History.pdf

    October 5, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "it is on a pro-religion website (alliance defending freedom)"

      you mean its on the website of the group that is encouraging these pastors to break the law? well no bias there then.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  10. MennoKnight

    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?”

    ------------------------------------------
    And I would answer:

    Mitt Romney’s handling of religious issues –- like Social justice which include care for the sick and the poor, care for our elderly, militarism and war mongering
    I could say: "“How can you go into that election booth and vote for Mitt Romney as president of the United States?”

    As a born again Christian pastor who preaches each week in a larger church I HATE what Obama has done with abortion, and gay marriage.
    But I have to say I would equally HATE what Mitt Romney plans to do too! He will take away health care from 50 Million Americans. He will cut help for our seniors. He will start a war with Iran. He will spend us into even more deficit spending through war while promising to further cut taxes to the wealthy.

    I will say NOTHING about elections this Sunday because I believe in separation of Church and State. Also because both choices are about the same.
    And personally at this point I will hold my nose and vote Obama because the devil I know than the Devil that I don't.

    (Oh and where has Obama taken away religious freedoms?)

    October 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @MennoKnight

      Thank you ! It really is about literally breaking the law.

      If the churches want their say as a political voice...then ya' lose your tax exempt status and pay taxes like everyone else.

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  11. Where is your god now?

    The toddler’s injuries weren’t consistent with how the couple said the girl hurt herself, said Jaroscak, who called the case among the “most devastating” he’s seen.

    Charging doc.u.ments state that doctors at Primary Children’s Medical Center – where the toddler was sent because of her extensive injuries – examined the girl and found chemical burns on the toddler’s face, hands and eyes. The burns on the girl’s eyes caused severe corneal damage that could result in her losing her vision, according to the doc.u.ments.
    The girl also suffered hemorrhages in both eyes and at least 50 cuts on her hands. Doctors discovered seven broken bones in her left hand and five in her right, which they believe were caused by “violent squeezing or blows directly to the hands,” the doc.u.ments state.

    Patches of her hair were missing as were two teeth, injuries which doctors’ said were consistent with blunt force trauma.

    Where is your god now?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  12. Rich

    This is why Texas and most southern states want less education...Just listen to your money grubbing pastor...and give till it hurts

    October 5, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      No need to be a hindu pygmy, filthy Atheist, self centered, not every one in Texas is from Texas, last time people involved in hinduism, criminality against a Child were from Michigan. Go to hind, hell for your hinduism, absurdity against Texas and Texans. hindu filthy yank.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  13. iminim

    I go to church regularly, but I absolutely would not support a church or pastor that tried to tell me how to vote or implied that God prefered one candidate over another. I do not want my church to participate in political functions or support favored politicians. The role of a church is spiritual. When religious organizations get involved in politics both the political party of choice & the religious group are forced to compromise their values. My church happens to be across the street from my state capital building. Many government workers & a few politicians are members or attend regularly. We might talk about the upcoming elections among ourselves in the halls and like-minded friends might have a converstation about candidates but our pastor never tells us how to vote. Some of the attendees are quite conservative, others are liberal, most are moderate, but ALL are capable of making their own decisions in the voting booth without a pastor telling us what to do. Any religious leader who feel it is necessary to support a political party or candidate from the pulpit is admitting his/her failure as a spiritual leader, and has stooped to seeking earthly power instead.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  14. pam

    Churches received tax exempt status because they used to use the money to help feed and house the poor. Now the government provides those safety nets, which is why the religious right wants to reduce welfare...it will force poor folks back into the church for help. Haven't you ever wondered why the religious right is so 'conservative?' Being against welfare goes against everything Jesus preached.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  15. realtalker

    If enough pastors do this we could solve the debt crisis. This is good for the U.S budget.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • filthburger

      tru dat

      October 5, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @realtalker

      Yes... the problem however is there is up to this point, -0- enforcement of the law.

      Then there is the enforcement issue of collecting from these morons.

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  16. Dan5404

    If churches want to be preaching politics from their pulpits and doing anything political as collective bodies representing a religious organization, then they need to pay taxes on their often posh real estate holdings, and rich pastors driving luxury cars and sporting Rolexes.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  17. 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 and pastors arrested 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 1:36 pm |
    • kithope

      Are you off your meds?

      October 5, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  18. Bootyfunk

    revoke his tax free status NOW!

    October 5, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  19. John Deatherage

    Why are ANY religious organizations tax exempt? Doesn't the tax exemption for religious organizations a violation of the Separation of Church and State?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  20. andrew

    I've come to refer to them as 'Political christians'. Essentially they're a blasphemous republican nationwide tax exempt religious organization claiming to be Christian, but as far from being Christians as you can get. 'Political christians' were the ones got under Jesus' skin and riled him more than all others combined. It's the BIGGEST LIE of all, when a political hack hypocrite stands in the pulpit and says God endorses his candidate over others. That's the very definition of lying. The GOP church of today wants to pay ZERO taxes and meet in fake churches to subvert laws and not read bibles.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @andrew,

      yes, 'Political christians' indeed. (I note your use of a lower case c.)

      Political christians = the American Taliban

      October 5, 2012 at 1:43 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.