Pastors Preach Politics, Risking Tax-Exempt Status
Nearly 1,600 pastors presented their political views to church congregants this past Sunday, Oct. 7, defying an existing federal ban on preaching politics from the pulpit. The Internal Revenue Service’s “Johnson Amendment” makes 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.”
The “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” protest was organized by Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Since 2008, the group has encouraged pastors to willfully violate the Johnson Amendment by endorsing political candidates from the pulpit. Pulpit Freedom Sunday had 33 churches participating in 2008, 539 in 2011, and 1,586 in 2012.
The IRS wrote in its 2011 annual report that it planned to “examine allegations of political intervention by pastors.” In 2009, complaints by watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) prompted the IRS to investigate pastor James Hammond for allegedly endorsing Republican Michele Bachmann for Congress during a church service. The move “led to a challenge of the IRS audit procedure for churches, which the agency lost, and since then there have been no publicly known examples of it taking action against churches,” according to the Huffington Post.
Eric Stanley, ADF’s senior legal counsel, said in a statement that 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. It is all about creating a test case to find the Johnson amendment as unconstitutional.” According to Stanley, after the sermons are delivered, pastors participating in the event are “encouraged to send videos of their remarks to the IRS.”
Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said: “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. The ADF wants to elect the next president. They want to elect Mitt Romney.”
A July poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 66 percent of Americans believe houses of worship should not endorse political candidates for public office. That figure was 56 percent among white evangelical Protestants and 69 percent among Catholics.
Alliance Defending Freedom, “History of the Johnson Amendment,” speakupmovement.org (accessed Oct. 11, 2012)
Nanette Byrnes, “Pulpit Freedom Sunday: Pastors Defy Tax Rules, Back Political Candidates,” huffingtonpost.com, Oct. 8, 2012
Erin Carlyle, “Mac Hammond’s Living Word Church Faces Off With the IRS,” citypages.com, Oct. 22, 2008
Dan Merica, “Pastors Prepare to Take On IRS Over Political Endorsement Ban,” religion.blogs.cnn.com, Oct. 5, 2012
David Sessions, “‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’ Pastors Don’t Care About Religious Freedom,” thedailybeast.com, Oct. 7, 2012