Tax-Exempt Churches Challenge IRS on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”
On June 9, 2013, approximately 1,100 pastors in all 50 states participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an annual political event designed to provoke an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) challenge to the tax-exempt status of churches.
According to a federal law passed in 1954, known as the Johnson Amendment after its sponsor Lyndon B. Johnson, churches and all other 501(c)(3) charities are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office” if they are to remain tax-exempt. The IRS also states that “no substantial part of [a church’s] activity may be attempting to influence legislation.”
“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is organized by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal organization founded in 1994. According to the Christian News Network, while the Johnson Amendment: “does not specifically prohibit speech on topics that may be construed as being ‘political,’ such as homosexuality and abortion, ADF contends that it has often been interpreted that way by the IRS. It asserts that churches have refrained from speaking on certain societal topics out of a fear of losing their tax exempt status.”
Erik Stanley, JD, Senior Legal Counsel with ADF, said the pastors were asked to preach on the topic of gay marriage in advance of the upcoming US Supreme Court rulings on California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage on Nov. 4, 2008, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Stanley said, “The church is integral to the moral stability of a society. Every day that pastors are intimidated into silence on issues like life, liberty, the family, and marriage is another day the cultural erosion continues unchecked.”
The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), an organization committed to upholding the separation of church and state in US politics, opposes “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Annie Gaylor, the group’s co-president, stated: “It’s pretty insidious what they are doing. The framers of our Constitution adopted a godless constitution and they certainly did not envision a country where pastors could legislate their dogma. What they want from the IRS is preferential treatment.”
Only one church has lost its tax-exempt status since the 1954 ban went into effect: the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, NY, which had placed an anti-Bill Clinton advertisement in USA Today and the Washington Times four days before the 1992 presidential election.
Mark Silk, PhD, Director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, states that the IRS halted their investigations of churches altogether in 2009 after a federal judge in Minnesota barred the agency from auditing a church because it violated the 1984 Church Audit Procedures Act (CAPA). The Act requires that a church audit be undertaken by an official ranked at least as high as an IRS regional commissioner, but the regional commissioner positions were abolished at the IRS in 1998.
Charlie Butts, “We Double-Dare You, IRS: Pastors Sign Up, Preach Politics on ‘Freedom Sunday,'” OneNewsNow.com, June 10, 2013
Heather Clark, “Pastors Nationwide to Challenge Government Speech Regulations on ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday,’” ChristianNews.net, June 9, 2013
J. D. Gallop, “Pulpit Freedom Sunday Takes on Controversial Issues,” FloridaToday.com, June 7, 2013
Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations, www.IRS.gov, 2009
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “Politics and the Pulpit 2008,” PewForum.org, 2008
Mark Silk, PhD, “The IRS Leaves Churches Alone,” IndianapolisRecorder.com, May 23, 2013