Dozens of pastors around the nation are challenging an Internal Revenue Service rule that anti-Christian activists often invoke when they want to silence the message of churches, according to the Alliance Defense Fund.
The organization has announced that more than 80 preachers are taking part in its second annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday this weekend.
The pastors will preach Sunday sermons related to biblical perspectives on the positions of electoral candidates or current government officials, exercising their constitutional right to free religious expression, the ADF said.
They will do so despite a “problematic” IRS rule that activists use when they want to silence the message of Christians, the ADF said.
“Pastors have a right to speak about biblical truths from the pulpit without fear of punishment. No one should be able to use the government to intimidate pastors into giving up their constitutional rights,” ADF senior legal counsel Erik Stanley explained.
“ADF is not trying to get politics into the pulpit. On the contrary, the whole point is that churches should be allowed to decide for themselves what they want to talk about. The IRS should not be the one making the decision by threatening to revoke a church’s tax-exempt status. We need the government to get out of the pulpit,” he said.
The censorship for church pastors has been in place since the Johnson Amendment was added to the Federal Tax Code in 1954. However, enforcement has been spotty and the results have been vague, even though critics of Christian churches contend it limits what they can say from the pulpit.
The IRS has repeatedly launched investigations of churches based on allegations from organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, whose officials have taken advantage of the vagueness to report church “offenses.”
Stanley explained that, contrary to the misunderstandings of many, tax-exempt status is not a “gift” or “subsidy” from the government.
“Churches were completely free to preach about candidates from the day that the Constitution was ratified in 1788 until 1954,” explained Stanley. “The real effect of the Johnson Amendment is that pastors are muzzled for fear of investigation by the IRS. Rather than risk confrontation, many pastors have self-censored their speech, afraid to be critical of blatant immorality in government and foregoing opportunities to praise moral government leaders. The participants in Pulpit Freedom Sunday refuse to be intimidated into sacrificing their First Amendment rights.”
The Pulpit Initiative is a strategic litigation plan which, through lawsuits, is intended to restore the right of every pastor to speak scriptural truth from the pulpit about moral, social and government issues.
WND reported just weeks ago when the IRS closed an investigation into a Minnesota pastor’s sermons from just before the 2008 election that addressed the moral qualifications of the political candidates.
According to a letter posted online by the ADF, the Dallas, Texas, office of the IRS notified Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minn., the review was being closed.
“The IRS may commence a future inquiry to address the concerns described … after it resolves [a] procedural issue,” said the letter, signed by Sunita B. Lough.
The ADF said Pastor Gus Booth had preached on moral issues as a part of the Alliance Defense Fund’s Pulpit Initiative last year.
“Booth originally sent the IRS a copy of a sermon he preached in May 2008 with regard to the primary elections. After participating in the Pulpit Initiative’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday Sept. 28, Booth also sent the agency his sermon regarding the general election. After launching an audit of the church in August 2008, the IRS has now stated in a letter that it is closing its examination of the sermons due to a procedural problem,” the ADF said.
Stanley said it was an example of the IRS applying pressure to churches but refusing to let a case come to court where a ruling could be made.
“Instead of standing and fighting in court, the IRS prefers to run the other way,” said Stanley. “ADF would likely have waived any complaint about procedural concerns involved in the investigation stage of the audit in order to reach the merits of the case and clarify the law. Once a federal court has an opportunity to review the Johnson Amendment, we believe it will not take long for the court to strike it down as unconstitutional. Pastors have the right to preach from their pulpits on all issues, including candidates and elections. No pastor should fear the IRS.”
WND reported earlier when the IRS said it was dropping a two-year investigation into another church – this one in Kansas – over similar issues.
One of his messages said, then–Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius “accepted $100,000 from abortionist (George) Tiller, price of 1,000 babies.” A separate posting repeated President Obama’s statement from a campaign speech about sex education: “I don’t want [my daughters] punished with a baby.”
The notice Holick received 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.
He explained the signs “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, including “to lift up Jesus, to rebuke sin, to save babies, to be honest, to take a righteous stand.”
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