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. Stupidity reigns with you

    Who is sick of the double standard in this country! There are non-profit agencies who REALLY DO endorse candidates but I hear NOTHING about them being in the spotlight! Let's take a lesson from Jesus who said,

    "Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel."

    October 9, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  2. sokesky

    Maybe it's just time to tax churches just like every other money amassing group.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Stupidity reigns with you

      Yes, and how about taxing that ACLU who clearly endorses Obama....Oh, let's not forget ACORN.....You liberal antagonists with your agenda to kill churches but fail to look at agencies who REALLY do the damage....You all make us laugh!

      October 9, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • sokesky

      I'm good with that. I pay taxes, why shouldn't they?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • sokesky

      And churches aren't going anywhere. No one is trying to "kill them". Good grief, some of you people just want to rant your butts off.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  3. DinoSnider

    I don't see the problem. Looks like that church alliance volunteered to balance the federal budget by losing their tax-free status. It'll fill the funding gap from those tax breaks that expire next year.
    The article says "it's not rocket science" – well, safe to say there are no rocket scientists discussed in that article either.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  4. Dimmaggio

    I think they just used their rights

    October 9, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • hank

      Agree. The government shouln't be allowed to impose/legalize mandates, such as Obamacare abortions and morning after pills, on the church that go against the biblical foundation of the church and expect to legally muzzle the church to prevent exercising their "freedom of speach" and religious liberties to counter such impositions. One either believes all of the Bible or none of it as a Christian...one cannot pick and choose excerpts that suit either suit their lifestyle or political agenda while ignoring or graying those that do not. Why is it that many want liberties and freedom of speach for all but the Church? What are people afraid of?

      October 9, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  5. Stupidity reigns with you

    Oh my word, most of you all have A LOT stupidity overflowing! First, the preachers that spoke out on Sunday DID NOT endorse NOR CONDEMN ANY candidate from their pulpits NOR did they say who to vote for. What was said was purely factual and expository. Some of you are taking this "Authority is God-given" Well, duh, and our pastors were placed in our churches (WHICH BY THE WAY ISN'T A BUILDING, IT'S THE PEOPLE) BY God and I need to hear what my pastor says about a certain candidate! BY the way, the John Amendment is a clear violation to the 1st amendment anyway and should be repealed, but as with everything, there is a loophole, and our pastors FOUND IT, at least mine did! He didn't tell us who to vote for or against, but the facts laid out made the choice CLEAR for me! Furthermore, I already had my mind made up who I was voting for anyway!

    And Dana, the Bible is the inspired WORD of God, not "WORLD" of God...You might want to edit that...

    October 9, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  6. Dan I.

    I have absolutely no problem with preachers engaging in politilcal activism...provided they get treated like every other political agency.

    The establishment clause does not mean religions get special treatment, it means exactly the opposite, you get NO special treatment. Pay taxes

    October 9, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  7. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:------>>

    Putting the final kibosh on religion and therefore activating the "pink slipping" of the topic pastors:

    • There was probably no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • There was probably no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    A quick Google, Bing or Yahoo search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "

    October 9, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Bubba

      Gee .... maybe we should all follow you little mister smarty pants boy.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Bergamont

      Easter is not a Christian holiday. the Resurrection of Christ is but the Easter bunny, hiding of eggs and the like are not.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  8. Bubba

    Nice example the church is setting here. Break the law if you don't like it. What about the biblical belief that all authority is God given? Guess there is not much faith in that anymore!

    October 9, 2012 at 8:04 am |
  9. Herman Munsterr

    Let's form a theocracy based on Christian hate – just like Hitler did.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • fiftyfive55

      Why would anyone associate Adolph with christianity ? your a nincompoop

      October 9, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • G8R

      Perhaps because Hitler was a Catholic?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • fiftyfive55

      @g8r-what he did was not in the name of catholicism,just because he was catholic doesnt mean what he did was in the name of religion

      October 9, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  10. fiftyfive55

    Religion AND Politics is a very dangerous combo and usually leads to trouble.The one place people dont need to hear about politics is in church.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  11. Bridget

    Preaching politics from the pulpit works so well in other countries that allow it. Heck, they even have had religious clerics take over their government! That gets everyone living the clerics religion. Sounds like a model we should follow.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:50 am |
  12. Tom

    My fellow Americans, remember when you pay your taxes, that you are picking up the tab for all those religious organizations that don't pay any taxes put still want to influence how we live and vote.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:35 am |
  13. spangler

    Legally, a pastor can state who they personally are for or against, but risks their tax exempt status if they go further than that.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:12 am |
    • wiliam tells

      Lets hear it for godless Jeremiah Wright and his work-of-art now holed up inside the Whitehouse!

      ...for the time being.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:40 am |
  14. Rick1948

    Here;s another no-brainer. Follow the law and take their tax exempt status away.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:25 am |
    • Bubba

      Hear hear...

      October 9, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  15. Vincent

    Revoke the tax exemption status of all religious groups. But start with these groups thatre making it easier.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:21 am |
  16. nominalize

    On the same day this article appears, CNN also reports that 1 in 5 Americans admits to being tied to no religion at all. The number of people who would report no religion if there were no social or professional penalty is even higher.

    It's no coincidence, either- people don't like American churches sticking their noses in democracy's business. Look at the example of Europe if you want to see what happens when you mix church and state... eventually people will sour on the church(es) as just another corrupt power player, and poof! Nowadays in Europe, church is where tourists go to take pictures of the ceiling.

    If you want American Christianity to survive into the 21st century, keep it out of politics.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:15 am |
  17. Dan Warrick

    If these same pastors let Obama come to their church and campaign from the pulpit, would that be OK with you? Already been done.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:12 am |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    October 9, 2012 at 5:09 am |
    • Bert0529

      False certainty about the unknown is dangerous for children and adults alike. Personal reflection, clarity of purpose, and community support change things.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  19. louicro

    Or you fight this encroachment on democracy, or this is the first step to the "catholic" sharia in the us. Have fun ! 🙂

    October 9, 2012 at 5:08 am |
  20. pray

    And why wouldn't a church be able to? NPR is not for profit and slants everything towards their liberal end. Seems to me to a bit selective and should not be inforced.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:07 am |
    • Julian

      The founding fathers gave churches a tax-exempt status in exchange for the churches silence on politics. They are violating the deal.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:12 am |
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About this blog

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.