October 8th, 2012
02:20 PM ET

Pastor heralds success of endorsing from the pulpit, challenging IRS

By Dan Merica, CNN

In a sermon that likely broke the law, Indiana pastor Ron Johnson told his 400 congregants Sunday that for those who believe in the Bible, the decision to vote against President Barack Obama “is a no-brainer.”

“For Christian people who believe the Bible is the inspired world of God, it is not rocket science,” Johnson told CNN after his sermon.

Johnson’s anti-Obama sermonizing likely violated the so-called Johnson Amendment, an Internal Revenue Service rule that forbids 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.”

But Johnson appears comfortable with defying the IRS. His sermon was part of a national campaign by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal organization that has organized Pulpit Freedom Sunday since 2008, encouraging pastors to flout the Johnson Amendment with political endorsements from the pulpit.

Alliance Defending Freedom said that more 1,500 other pastors across the United States participated Sunday. The goal: to force the IRS to come down on these churches so the organization, 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 Erik Stanley, Alliance Defending Freedom's senior legal counsel. “It is all about creating a test case to find the Johnson Amendment as unconstitutional.”

With less than a month until the presidential election, what was said at this year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday could hold more sway than in previous years.

Critics say the movement is a Republican front dressed up as an exercise in religious freedom, an allegation the event organizer rejects.

“The ADF wants to elect the next president. They want to elect Mitt Romney,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “This is not about some principle.”

Johnson denies that, noting on Sunday he did not endorse Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, but instead urged his congregation to vote against Obama, whose policies he called “un-American.”

He said the speech received a number of standing ovations.

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 whom the churches plan to endorse.

The Alliance Defending Freedom has ties to other conservative Christian groups such as the American Family Association and Focus on the Family.

“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,” Lynn said.

So far, the effort has received little to no response from the IRS.

The IRS did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Many of the sermons from Sunday will be sent to the nation’s tax collection agency, a move that organizers hope will make it easy for the IRS to come down on the churches. 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 nonenforcement by the IRS has emboldened some pastors and the Alliance Defending Freedom, said Lynn of Americans United. According to pastors who have participated in the past, the fact the IRS rarely if ever comes down on these churches encourages 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.

But the lack of enforcement stems from bureaucratic uncertainty about what rank an IRS official must be to initiate an investigation, Lynn said.

In the past, the IRS has investigated churches that it suspected of violating the Johnson Amendment.

Four days before the 1992 presidential election, the Landmark Church in Binghamton, New York, ran a full-page ad in USA Today that said, "Christians Beware," followed by a list of Bill 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 the church lost its tax-exempt status in 1995.

Landmark Church pastor Dan Little took the IRS to court, arguing the agency was violating the church's First Amendment rights and the agency was only able to revoke the tax-exempt status of a "religious organization," not an actual church.

Both a U.S. District Court judge and a federal appeals court rejected those arguments.

Johnson, the Indiana pastor, laughs when asked about those who question whether a pastor should be allowed to endorse from the pulpit.

“Pastors understand 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 • Christianity • Mitt Romney • Politics

soundoff (581 Responses)
  1. Jess B

    How this is news is beyond me. Churches have been directly involved in Republican campaigns for over a hundred years. No one cares to call out their own pastor for fear of losing their get-out-of-hell card.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  2. Gadflie

    The churches voluntarily sign away their right to endorse candidates when they apply for 501 (c)(3) status. It's not like applying is mandatory.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
  3. lin

    And you all wonder why the article about being spiritual rather than religious. Right there tells you WHY. I wonder what Jesus would say about all his so called christians how they are treating the people in the world today. It is so sad, so sad that I can't go to church anymore because I am an outcast even though God made me and I AM a child of God. So sad so sad.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
  4. VTBobb

    I agree churches should not preach politics. However, unions also should not be allowed to engage in politics if they want to be tax exempt. Pretty hypocritical.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • David in Florida

      So get Congress to pass a law.
      Until then, live with it.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
  5. Ron

    It's time to take the tax exemptions away from the church.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • VTBobb

      And unions?

      October 8, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  6. Sam235

    Congress and the president have not been given the authority to tax churches. It is illegal to tax the church no matter what the church says about the government.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • Will

      I think you will find that's not the case.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
    • Russell's Teapot

      Wrong again Sam, I already referenced the Johnson Amendment, which was upheld in court, which you blithely disregarded.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      and you do realize that the Johnson amendment to the tax code was passed during the Eisenhower adminstration, right around the same time they put "In God we Trust" on the folding money and inserted "God" into the pledge of allegience?

      October 8, 2012 at 11:28 pm |

    In a country where everyone believes something different, religion has no place in politics, and Pastors should lose their tax exempt status if this rule is broken. I am sure there is no where in the bible where you find the words demcrate or republican.


    October 8, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
  8. Gerstaut

    And you wonder why atheism is the fastest growing creed in the us. People are SICK of going to church and having to listen to intolerant garbage like this. Who wants to hear that their gay cousin or uncle is going to Hell? And what cowards these priests are saying that you should "not vote for Obama.". Say what you mean and stand by the courage of your convictions. I could carve a better man from a banana.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
  9. DMS

    First place you find a demon is in the pulpit. Anybody that knows anything about Religion knows that. I have to admit, it's happening just as the Bible said it would, the masses would be misled by the deceiver (a flip flopper is a deceiver). After all, he is AntiChristian and he's convinced these people that he's a "Good Christian". Mitt thinks Christianity is an abomination. When you vote against the poor, vote for the wealthy, vote against the sick, the disabled, the hungry..and convince yourself that's what God wants and teaches. I know alot of Christians (myself included) that see what Romney is and what he represents. Hopefully these congregations will see these 'people' for what they really are.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • Manonfire

      So you would rather vote for a man that issued an executive order his very first day in office that reversed the ban on the horrific murders of babies by partial-birth abortion. I think the Lord would rather us vote for the man that more closely follows His word than one that proclaims to be a Christian when it is politically convenient for him. Romney adheres more closely to the Christian faith than Obama ever has. You need to rethink your position. By electing him, the blood of all those thousands of dead babies will be something you will have to account for – believe me now or believe me later, I don't care, but you will know the error of your ways.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
    • David in Florida

      To Manofire
      Do I have to follow your religious beliefs?
      Make me!!!

      October 8, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
    • Will

      @manonfire That's completely ridiculous. The fact that anyone votes for Obama or Romney does not put any blood on their hands regardless of whether you are pro-life or pro-choice. Romney won't sign an executive order ending abortion anymore than Obama will. I am no more responsible for any babies dying because of whom I vote for than you are. Insane logic.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  10. Chris

    Are you kidding me?? Have you ever been to a BLACK church?? Ever, in like the past 30 years?!?! I went to one that had a bookstore inside with Obama t-shirts for crying out loud!!!!

    October 8, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • lynnmarie2u

      I myself make no distinction on what color the people are,what denomination,what god they pray to. When the churches start to dictate policies,voter choice,etc. If they want be part of the process fully,then can do so without benefit of tax dollars.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • David in Florida

      So report the issue to the IRS.
      It is their job to investigate.
      You might even get a reward.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
  11. Lonewolf

    Take the hater's tax exemption away now!

    October 8, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
  12. lynnmarie2u

    It is time to take away the tax exemptions of the churches. If they want to have a voice in the political arena,then they must play by the same rules as the rest of the citizenry.When the pundits,the candidates,the people push for cuts,the churches should be amongst the organizations that face the chopping block also.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:48 pm |

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    October 8, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  14. Manonfire

    The thing you anti-church people don't realize is that the church is the PEOPLE, the membership, the congregations and true Christians know that God supplies their need, including that of the church. If the government (aka, Caesar) decides to collect tax on the church, the need will be supplied. What I can't figure out is all your rage now but the lack of rage when the likes of Al Gore and every black liberal preacher in the country does it at every election at every level. I actually heard a "reverend" wright – not of obama fame – on a TV program out of Memphis TN calling republicans "evil" and encouraging people to vote Democrat. Not a word was said against HIS church OR his Tax Exempt Status. Looks to me like you people are the hipocrites.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Ministers can endorse candidates. They cannot do it from the pulpit. It's really that simple.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • David in Florida

      None of them did it from the pulpit.
      They did their politicizing in venues outside of the church – that is permitted by the tax law.
      And please don't say they didn't have the right to say what they believed. No matter what their beliefs (and I don't like the Reverend Wright either), they have that right and I will not dispute their right to their say anymore than I will dispute these preachers' right to their say.
      What they are doing that is not permitted is to do it in church. That kills their tax exemption. And Justice Roberts said in his Obamacare opinion that Congress has the absolute right to tax – no exceptions.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • John

      Most of us are not "anti-church". We believe in the freedom of religion. We believe each of us has a right to worship to the God of our choice if we choose one at all We are anti the like of you trying to force your views on the rest of us. Religious Right=American Taliban, the only difference is which religion is being forced on the masses.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
  15. Plumbline

    sounds like the gestopo to me............what about seperation of church and state..........

    October 8, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
    • David in Florida

      Read the First Amendment. It does NOT state "freedom of religion". It specifically states:
      Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;...
      Taxing all churches is not a law respecting an establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
      Granting a tax exemption to all churches that do not interfere in politics is not a law respecting an establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
    • Sam235

      Nope. Taxing a church can destroy the church. Destroying something is not respecting it and totally stops its free expression.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • Will

      @Sam235 Sorry Sam – tax is something that can destroy any business or person, and pursuit of happiness is also protected. Paying your fair share is certainly not against the 1st amendment, and it's a weak interpretation to suggest otherwise.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
  16. geeworker

    solution is simple but no one wants to tackle it remove the tax exempt status loophole this way the IRS wouldn't waste resources investigating infractions of this loophole the US tax code would be a little bit lighter. and the church could continual the practice of endorsing candidates and forcing their lamers to do the same with fear and shun tactics and they no longer would need lawyers to defend their tax exempt status everyone wins

    October 8, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
  17. John Gault

    I would like to challenge that churches should get tax exempt status. Any business that sells something should be taxed. Churches sell fantasy. Churches are business, big businesses. Pay up or just shut up.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
  18. DRoueche

    As a devout Christian myself, politics have no part in a church service and it disgusts me when "pastors" use the pulpit to further their agendas. Whether it be Jeremiah Wright or any other pastor it's a disgrace.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • Sam235

      That is fine, but neither you nor congress have any authority to stop churches from saying thing you subjectively decide they should not say.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
  19. Chris

    Please go after the Church that preaches politics. Especially the mega churches with coffee bars and bookstores...who never pay a dime in taxes on those sales. The original principal behind allowing tax exempt status to churches was that churches use to provide services for the community like food pantries, homeless shelters, schools, and other social ideals. There gifts to the community far outweighed any taxes that would be received. But, since the invention of the mega churches and media preachers...the church has turned away from providing basic community needs, instead they have turned to shear profits on there latest book tour or tv show. I say reinstate the taxes for churches, but give them tax breaks that could equal tax exemption for quality community service like homeless shelters, unwed mother's day care, hospitals, schools, and prison rehabilitation programs. If you don't believe me check out some of the mega churches websites on what community involvement they have....one in Houston only provides meals to 400 homeless once a day five days a week with a total congregation of 40k+....that is just disgusting. That church promotes seminars on financial wealth and jazzercize classes more than they promote charity and community service.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • Sam235

      No. The original and still law was that the government and church should be separate so that the two do not become corrupted by one another. The power to tax is the power to destroy. The government does not have the legal authority to tax the church at all no matter what the church says about the government .

      October 8, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Actually, the government does have the power to tax churches. All they have to do is lump them in with other businesses. Just like they had to lump them in with other non-profits to allow them a tax exemption.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  20. Sam235

    John Adams
    2nd U.S. President and Signer of the Declaration of Independence

    "Suppose a nation in some distant Region should take the Bible for their only law Book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God ... What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be."
    –Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Vol. III, p. 9.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
    • John Gault

      Every person would also own a slave, and have the right to sell his daughter into slavery. If his child did not follow his religion he could stone them to death. Seems John Adams cheery picked same as modern Christians do. Interesting, he also co authored the treaty of Tripoli in 1797. Article 11 begins with "As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion..."

      October 8, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
    • RLM

      Hasn't worked out so well with the Quran and Sharia law.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • Sam235

      John Gault, He is not cherry picking; you are just misinterpreting him. The founders used their religion to form their views, but they did not force their religion on other people like atheist currently want to do.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • mama kindless

      Wrong Sam235. They used their Deist leanings inwardly to resolve differences and make decisions while outwardly occasionally going to a church service here or there.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:17 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.