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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. Visitor

    Does anyone remember any Pastors or Priests preaching to Married Men to stop having s-x with their wives so their wives won't get pregnant?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • wolfgang02813

      Wouldn't also be against the church for a man to have a vasectomy? Just a thought.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  2. Dan

    Christians doing whatever the hell they want regardless of the law? It must be Friday.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • blah

      That's a good one

      October 5, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  3. Michael

    So let me get this right... Jesus Christ would rather have us vote for the guy who doesn't care for the poor and only wants to make the rich richer? What friggin planet do these "preachers" live on?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  4. Where is your god now?

    Reports reveal that the mother knowingly allowed her boyfriend to beat the child on a regular basis and was fully aware he was beating the child with a cord and heard her cries and screaming and just went on her merry way. She was probably grateful that someone else was going to take the fall for getting rid of a baby she obviously felt was a burden.

    Where is your god now?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • RLG

      That's the home without religion

      October 5, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  5. Blasphemy

    After a lifetime of disregard for their fellow man they think they can find their way into heaven by kissing God's posterior.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  6. Bootyfunk

    "“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"

    completely false. if a church gives up their gov't tax exempt status, they can say ANYthing they want. it's only that tax benefit keeping churches from preaching politics. want to talk politics from the pulpit? stop taking a gov't handout and you can. cry more....

    October 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • RLG

      Then it would logically follow that any organization this has tax exempt status can't endorse a candidate, right? So, then any orgranization that receives government funding can't endorse a candidate, right?

      October 5, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • blah

      @RLG
      I know where you’re going with this, but tax-exempt is not the same as receiving government funding.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • CosmicC

      Yes, that's why political contributions are not tax exempt. Organizations that lobby or take a political position cannot claim tax exemption. Many organizations are divided into a taxable side that advocates for a particular position and a tax exempt side that charitable work.
      They just don't get it; in this country religions should not get special treatment.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  7. Visitor

    They can get ready for protests on Sunday morning. If they want to turn their churches into political organizations, they can be treated like them.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  8. Realist

    Throw all 1400 of them in jail, and throw away the key. Religion is the problem, not the solution, and the very last thing anyone needs is religion integrated into state. Moreover, tax churches immediately. In a campaign rife with talk about "closing tax loopholes", this may not be one of the biggest, but it's one of the most important. Religion is the most massive drain on humanity the world has ever fabricated.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  9. MM

    All churches MUST be taxed. These for-profit enterprises are no different than any other business establishment.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  10. wolfgang02813

    If there is a war on the religous people, ie, birth control, abortion. If the catholic church is so against birth control. Why dosen't anyone mention the fact of vasectomies. Isn't that a form of birth control. Whats good for the women is good for the man. NO MORE VASECTOMIES and no insurances paying for it.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  11. FloydZepp

    LOL! Pastors now think its more important to worship the Politics of Man than the Worship of God. No wonder Christianity is dying.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  12. God bless America

    We pray that we will always remain true to the word of God.
    Amen.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      One has to be truthful to GOD, truth absolute and obedient of WORD, commandment's of GOD, truth absolute, word is a medium not the source, WORD, a command has no authority, because, Word is commanded to be by the Source, truth absolute, GOD, no need to be a Magi hindu, criminal trickster to promote hindu Mithra ism, pagan savior ism labeled as Christianity.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "Word is commanded to be by the Source," Try re-installing the entire Office suite and rebooting? Maybe that will get those bees out of your head before you see the Blue Screen of Death.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  13. raforrester

    I wonder how all the congregations will react to hearing their pastors electioneering. It is exhausting hearing all the political ads on TV and constant news about how the election is progressing. Will people sit still for it in the one place where they should find peace? I would expect my pastor to provide examples of loving their neighbors regardless of their political beliefs. If I heard my pastor doing that, I'd walk out.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • truthbtold

      I agree!

      October 5, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  14. John

    You really can't get more un-American than tax-exempt religious organizations supporting political causes and candidates. I do not want to live in a theocracy or religion-dominated country such as Iran. And I don't want politics run by people who believe in a myriad of different gods and dogmas.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  15. Mack

    Start paying taxes then.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  16. TheDerf

    Abortion, not mentioned in the bible. Rules of marriage as we see them today, not in the bible. Religious freedoms, not in the bible. Done.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      The Bible allows you to have multiple wives; the USA does not. The USA has higher moral standards than the Bible. We don't allow witch-burning or wife-stoning either.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  17. AJ

    The Word says that we should pray for our leaders that we may live a peaceful, quiet life. We should pray for whoever is in the White House, as (according to the Word) government and leaders are God-ordained. I may not agree with everything Obama does or says, but he is my brother in Christ. How many of these same churches that are against Obama are lifting him up in prayer as we are told to do?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      word is a medium not the source, WORD, a command has no authority, because, Word is commanded to be by the Source, truth absolute, GOD, no need to be a Magi hindu, criminal trickster to promote hindu Mithra ism, pagan savior ism labeled as Christianity.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "How many of these same churches that are against Obama are lifting him up in prayer as we are told to do?" They sincerely believe that he is a devout Muslim named Barry Soetoro who is going to take their guns away. Faith is a beautiful thing for a congregation to have!

      October 5, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  18. T2q Mom

    For a pastor to let a congregation know his views from the pulpit should not be a problem – as long as they relinquish their tax exemption, and the right of the congregation to make tax-exempt donations to the church. However, as long as they want to retain both of those, they have to abide by the rules the IRS set forth. And for the record, I am both a conservative, a Christian and a tax professional.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @T2q Mom

      Thank you !

      Peace...

      October 5, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Indeed so.

      This is more than just 'free speech from the pulpit'. Thanks to 'Citizens United' we now have this speech = money concept. Now we have the spectre of tax-free money funding political campaigns.

      Were I a parishioner making financial contributions for doing 'God's work' I would not want to see this money spent in political endorsement.

      We have more than enough opportunity to contibute directly to political speech.

      Doubless there is a lot of tax-free church money already going to the political arm of the American Taliban (Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, American Family Association, Wallbuilders, etc). It makes me wonder just how much goes to PACs and Super PACs as well.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  19. thegoodword

    oh endorsing is an issue??? why is Sebelius still in post then ???

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

      Huh?
      Kathleen Sebelius holds an appointed cabinet position. What's that got to do with churches endorsing candidates?

      October 5, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "oh endorsing is an issue???" No honey, it's not. Get a cookie or something and let the adults talk, 'kay?

      October 5, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • thegoodword

      violated the hatch act for endorsing obama at taxpayer sponsered event not a problem i think so !!! oh you libs need to get out more 🙂

      October 5, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • ME II

      @thegoodword,
      Oh, the Hatch Act, that's a different law.
      This article is about the "Johnson Amendment," prohibiting interference in political campaigns, among other things. You conservatives (not that I'm a liberal, but I'm inferring your position based on your previous comment) need to read the article you comment on.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  20. Where is your god now?

    A 5-month-old was dropped off at his parents’ house on Feb. 4, strapped into his car seat. Eight days later, he was found in the same position.

    He died from starvation due to neglect from these two defendants, his parents.

    The 5 month old baby only weighed 2 lbs. more than what he weighed at birth. He was found lying in his own waste, which had not been changed or attended to in 8 days.

    I wonder if they had music playing loud enough to drown out his cries, or if the baby was too weak and dehydrated to cry?

    Where is your god now?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      Your comments are offensive to every human being on this blog. Please stop. Do you have OCD or something?

      October 5, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • CosmicC

      I have CDO. It's like OCD, but the letters are in the correct order.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:36 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.