Christian pastors should stop censoring themselves in fear of an “unconstitutional” 1954 provision in the IRS code that has threatened to eliminate their church tax-exempt status if they speak out against positions held by political candidates, urges a leading legal alliance.

The Alliance Defense Fund today announced a new initiative that will challenge the IRS ban on political comment from churches and their pastors.

“Churches have for too long feared the loss of tax exempt status arising from speech in the pulpit addressing candidates for office,” the ADF’s white paper on the campaign confirmed. “Rather than risk confrontation, pastors have self-censored their speech, ignoring blatant immorality in government and foregoing the opportunities to praise moral government leaders.

“ADF believes that IRS restrictions on religious expression from the pulpit, whenever the IRS characterizes it as ‘political,’ is unconstitutional. After 50 years of threats and intimidation, churches should confront the IRS directly and reclaim the expressive rights guaranteed to them in the United States Constitution,” the group said.


The ADF said its program will “equip, protect, and defend pastors who wish to exercise their First Amendment right to openly discuss the positions of political candidates and other moral and social issues from the pulpit.”

The group is encouraging pastors across the U.S. to “deliver a sermon along these lines in their own churches Sept. 28,” which is just days before the 2008 presidential election, a debate that has been rife with moral questions.

Before 1954, churches freely evaluated the politicians of the day on moral issues without fear of retribution.

That year, Democratic Sen. Lyndon Johnson amended the tax code to add the threat of IRS action against churches if their pastors mentioned the positions of specific candidates from the pulpit, the ADF said.

“No official reason was given for the amendment, but scholars believe that Johnson offered the amendment to restrict the speech of a private foundation that supported a political opponent,” the ADF said.

However, the prosecution of such limits has been based on religion, because the same restrictions do not apply to other tax-exempt groups, including civil leagues; labor, agricultural, or horticultural associations; business leagues; chambers of commerce; real estate boards; boards of trade; and other groups.

“The intimidation of churches by leftist groups using the IRS has grown to a point that ADF has no choice but to respond,” said Erik Stanley, senior counsel for the ADF. “The number of threats being reported to ADF is growing because of the aggressive campaign to unlawfully silence the church. IRS rules don’t trump the Constitution, and the First Amendment certainly trumps the Johnson amendment.”

Pastors who want to participate can find information at a special page assembled on the ADF website.

“The government can’t demand that a church give up its right to tax-exempt status simply because the pastor exercises his First Amendment rights in the pulpit. Groups like Americans United [for Separation of Church and State] intentionally trigger IRS investigations that will silence churches through fear, intimidation, and disinformation,” the ADF said.

Mike Johnson, another counsel for ADF, told WND the goal really is to “take the muzzle off” Christian churches.

“We’re reminding them that they have the right to openly discuss the positions of political candidates, and we’re going to be there for them if there’s a challenge,” he said.

“There’s a very aggressive campaign to unlawfully silence the church,” he said. To opponents who want to take to court the issue over such First Amendment restrictions, he said, “It’s time to have that test.”

Ironically, the ADF said, to date there’s never been a reported case of a church losing its tax exempt status for sermons delivered from the pulpit evaluating candidates for office in light of Scriptures.

“This may be because the IRS does not want to encounter the constitutional issues raised by punishing speech from the pulpit. … Unfortunately, many churches either accept the IRS interpretation of the code or simply avoid these topics altogether,” the ADF said.

But the simple interpretation is that such speech restrictions violate the First Amendment, according to the ADF.

“The restriction excessively entangles the government with religion, violates a chuuch’s right to free exercise of religion, and violates a church’s right to free speech,” the white paper said.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that there is no compelling purpose for the government to extend a statutory privilege (like tax exemption) only on the condition that the recipient gives up a fundamental right (like free speech). In fact the opposite is true. The ‘exaction of a tax as a condition to the exercise of the great liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment is … obnoxious,'” the group wrote.

WND has reported a number of such cases, including ones against California and Kansas churches. It also has reported a case sought by Christian pastors who are accusing one of their critics of “intervening” in a political campaign by seeking to have their comments limited.

In one case, Wichita, Kan., Pastor Mark Holick’s church, Spirit One Christian Center, was targeted by the IRS for  moral statements he posted on the church’s sign.

The notice Holick got from the IRS warned him about putting his Christian beliefs on the sign, and he responded that he would continue to preach the Word of God. Attorneys said the church has responded to the IRS demands and has not had further contact.

In that case, Holick explained the signs all “are spiritual messages that communicate God’s truth or are directly related to messages in the Bible.” He also provided the IRS with a list of dozens of biblical instructions “to lift up Jesus, to rebuke sin, to save babies, to be honest, to take a righteous stand” and others.

WND also reported when Internet evangelist Bill Keller suggested that Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a leader in filing such complaints, report his own denomination, the United Church of Christ, to the IRS.


Bill Keller

Keller, who operates LivePrayer.com, says the suggestion follows the decision by the tax-exempt UCC to open the podium of its general synod meetings to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

While in the podium, Obama lambasted the “religious right” for “hijacking” Christianity. “Faith got hijacked partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian right, who’ve been all too eager to exploit what divides us,” he said.

Lynn earlier had asked the IRS to investigate the Florida ministry of Keller, who hosts the Live Prayer TV program and LivePrayer.com, for his comments about Mormonism.

 


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