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

    Another Pastor with an unhealthy interest in what goes on between women's legs.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  2. Visitor

    Is lying to start the Iraq War a sin? Or is sin only that "girly" stuff like contraception?

    October 5, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  3. Alex

    This is simple, if these pastors want to talk politics to their congregations fine, then you'll lose your tax exempt status. No longer can you purchase goods or services without taxes. You can't have it both ways.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • mdm123

      Correct. And a similar philosophy applies to the whole discussion about "churches being forced to provide contraceptives". If a church wishes to wander out of the pure "religion" mode and enters into the world of business and run a huge number of hospitals, then they need to obey the laws of the marketplace. If they object, then stay out of the commercial market. That does not qualify as a pure church vs. state discussion.

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

      It's not just sales tax they are exempt from. Worse it's also property taxes. These are the taxes used to fund education, the fire department, the police dept., and so forth. They are using these services but not paying for them. It also exempts them from paying taxes on products or services sold by the church. Any other business must pay income tax on the profits from their enterprises, not churches. So it's much more than just sales tax. Think of all the property owned by the churches. The churches themselves, the rectory, summer camps, etc., ect. Think of how much LESS tax you would be paying if they all paid their fair share.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  4. Kisha From Houston

    Shame on you if you allow your Pastor to bully you or think for you. You have the right to vote for any candidate that you choose. I hate it when people use religion as a tool of manipulation. I hope the IRS slaps them with a huge tax bill. I'll be they'll change their tune then.

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

    Excellent way to close the deficit! Let's tax the church
    No more free ride for the churchs

    October 5, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  6. Bible Clown©

    This is just another reason to vote for Obama: these pastors' heads will explode when he wins!

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

      Keep in mind that pastors on the Left and Right will be talking politics.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  7. Karen

    Well that is one way to make up money on our debt. Fine take those that participate and end their church's TAX FREE status. Political Speach does not belong in the pulpit. Too many people are lead by church leaders rather than a mind of their own to determine their own beliefs. For that matter many "Christians" would look at the LDS church that Romney belongs too as a cult and not a real christian church due to the fact that they do not believe the Nicene Creed. So this could go either way based on the leaders belief not what people should determine for themselves.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Walter Tory

      Since when do you have to endorse Catholic theology to be a Christian? If I believe in Jesus Chrint and his teaching, Therefore, I am a Christian. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and I believe in Jesus Christ, therefor I am a Christian. I have a free agency to think for myself and define myself. You do not define me. As for God the Father and his son Jesus Christ appearing to the youth Joseph Smith, they have a right and power to do this if they choose to. Do you have the power to prevent this from occuring? I think not!

      October 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "As for God the Father and his son Jesus Christ appearing to the youth Joseph Smith, they have a right and power to do this if they choose to"

      you actually believe that happened huh? bizarre.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  8. DJL

    Tax 'em back to the 16th Century. Oh wait, they're already there...

    October 5, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  9. Religionstayoutofgovt

    Pastor want their cake and eat it too! NOPE not happening. Thats why I am so frustrated with religious organizations!! Keep out of politics and just pray!!! Religious organization need to stop trying to muscle their way into politics. You job is to pray that's it!!! Separations of church and state founding fathers!!! I say No to Sharia Law, No to Judeo Christain laws . Any religious organization in the government is dangerous.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  10. DMR

    If the churches want to ignore then law, fine. Tax them to the fullest extent possible and include full penalties. The law is very clear and several churches and even denominations think they are above the law. Preach politics from the pulpit or functions of the church, then pay the taxes.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  11. DENNA

    Churches need to stay out of politics. My husband refuses to attend church now because he has heard political preferences in churches. I attend church and I am pro-choice. I would not stop going to church, but until my male pastor can give birth, I won't let him dictate my choice of candidate. Go President Obama!

    October 5, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  12. johnmenacherjr@rocketmail.com

    OK so this is a 1954 law, How is that Obammas fault? For petes sake it is so simple Any political machine delivering a congregation to wvote one persons wishes ids just morally wrong. Like the saying says HEAL THYSELF. mAN THIS IS JUST SO STUP[ID THEY SHOULD BE TAXED LIKE ANYONE ELSE IN AN ENTERPRISE what the hell is wrong with people these days!

    October 5, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      John, they are fine as long as they don't use a tax shelter to help campaign for someone as toxic as Mittens. I'd say all churches will suffer for this before the decade is out; they will long regret bringing this to court.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      And somewhat ironically, Dwight D. Eisenhower (a Republican) was President when this law was enacted.

      Apparently Conservatives thought it 'fair' at the time. (That was long before the American Taliban of course.)

      October 5, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  13. SoldierOfConscience

    Way to go! The pastors should take this all the way to the supreme court and win. It will set a very good precedent. People doing God's work shouldnt have to answer to Caesar or be figuratively thrown to the lions for standing their ground.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • SGT J

      The Lord himself said in Mark 12:17 Give unto Caesar that which is Caesars and to God that which is God's. So, the Lord already set a president that Christians should pay their taxes.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • gateway

      So, as long as they say "God told me to do it!" they can pretty much do anything? Is that what you are saying?

      October 5, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Little Caesar

      " So, the Lord already set a president " Don't we get to vote? I want what's mine, and I want it in less than thirty minutes or it's free.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • DENNA

      So, SoldierOfConscience, do you also agree that a poor woman who gives birth should receive public aid, link cards and other public welfare to help her with this child or are you like that fool Akin who thinks a woman can "self-abort" if the situation isn't to her liking? Men should not be making any of these decisions AT ALL!

      October 5, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Visitor

      LOL, oooh, big man words, "Soldier" and "Thrown to the Lions". Figuratively of course, in your very real fantasies.

      What silliness. It's like Christians meet GI Joe meet Hollywood. Whatever would some Christians do if they realized that they are free to exercise their religion, and they only oppression is the one they themselves want over others? Usually women of course, easy targets they are....

      October 5, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • SoldierOfConscience

      All I know is that the trend is "If its about a christian, then pile on/make fun of/ discrimminate etc. If its about a muslim, hindu, wiccan, whatever then encourage them"

      October 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      Why do you hate our constitution so much? I never understand how people can so obviously hate a concept (seperation of church and state) that protects you as well.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Visitor

      A quote from President George W. Bush

      "I don't think witchcraft is a religion. I would hope the military officials would take a second look at the decision they made."

      G.W. Bush (R), as Governor of Texas.
      Interviewed on ABC's Good Morning America, 1999-JUN-24.
      He disapproved of Wiccan soldiers being given the same religious rights as others in the military.

      Yeah, Christians are so Tolerant of Wiccans. Wiccans needed to sue just to get the right to have their own religious emblem on military gravestones after they got killed in Iraq.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • dem4guns

      SoldierOfConscience: First: You are exagerating a bit, either that or maybe much of the negativity your thinking about is actually christian against christian (in other words: Denominational), catholic against protestant, etc... Second: The, if its about a Christian then, pile on/make fun of/descriminate etc., that you're seeing is actually just normal criticisms that all these others would also receive if it were not for special (looking out for) treatment, protections and sensitivities based on their being a minority. Christians because, historically we recognize "Christianity" as the religion nearest and dearest to (most of) our hearts is the closest thing to a National-Religion we (most of us anyway) can all relate too. It appears that we go out of our way to protect minorities. Minorities are the most vulnurable, the most susceptable to discrimination.

      December 3, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  14. Andrij Witiuk

    'Word of God,' a pastor is quoted. What they actually preach is 'narrowminded hatred for anyone different than they are.' Tax 'em and lighten the average citizens tax load.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  15. SpenderH

    One problem with enforcement is that the Pastor making the political statements is not the "church". In most cases the Pastor is an employee of the church (at least technically) and the church is controlled by a board of members. Punishing the church for the statements of the Pastor would be problematic, and the Pastor is not receiving the tax-exempt status from the government. The Pastor pays income tax just like everybody else. The IRS would probably have to send a warning letter to the church first and threaten to revoke their status if their employee violates the law again.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  16. jj

    Separation of church and state means nothing to religious people....whether they be Muslim or Christian.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • DENNA

      jj: it means something to me. I am a Christian, but I also think for myself. I am pro choice and I don't think men need to be part of this process, pastor or not. Anti abortion people don't care about the woman or the child, they only care about pushing their own narrow agenda. I wonder how many of them are against welfare and other public assistance. Once that child is born, the prolifer don't give a darn about that child.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Hogan's Goat

      Muslims believe the Church should be the State, so it will be a Godly State. Trouble is, States must do things a man would be damned for, or else see themselves fail and their citizens die. This is why they call Thomas Jefferson a genius, and why we can still argue that this is the greatest country in the world.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  17. Quinn

    Render to Cesar the things that are Cesar's – and render to God the things that are God's.
    Do you know the difference between the two?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Little Cesar

      Pizza pizza.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  18. mama kindless

    This tax shelter for religion nutballs is out of hand. If they start preaching for candidates, they need to pay tax. And I'm not sure how it works, but they should only get a tax break against the amount of humanitarian outlay they give (where there are no strings attached).

    October 5, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  19. Duncan

    Excellent way to close the deficit! Let's tax the church, most are nothing more than commercial enterprises hiding behind their tax status any how.

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

      Thank you Duncan for expressing what I and many others have been thinking for so long!

      October 5, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      The real Christians will pay to keep their churches going, and the financial Christians will give up and say "Well, it was fun while it lasted."

      October 5, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • SGT J

      I couldn't agree more. Take away their tax exempt status and let them pay their share! "render unto cezar that which is cezars and unto God that which is God's." Time to pay the tax man.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Little Cezar

      " "render unto cezar that which is cezars" And add fifteen percent for the tip. Pizza pizza.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  20. Dawn

    Really fellow Christians. Stay away from churches that tell you how to vote...that preach on it. Where is your freedom there? And the hypocrisy...they will take tax benefits from the Federal Government...while using the pulpit for campaigning. And really, from what I read in the article, it sure sounds like you will be endorsing a candidate. There are two candidates and you are telling your congregation to eliminate one from the race. It's arithmetic...again. I am a Proud Prostestant who attends church, volunteers there, and am glad for bible-based sermons that expand my understanding, not limit it to the opinions of money-grabbing evangelical pastors. Look at where your pastor lives and that may tell you why he is endorsing Romney. And yes, we have women Pastors, so I wouldn't have automatically used the male pronoun. But that's not seen very often in the evangelical churches. The women can preach, but only if there is a male to check what she is preaching.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
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