Bob Unruh joined WND in 2006 after nearly three decades with the Associated Press, as well as several Upper Midwest newspapers, where he covered everything from legislative battles and sports to tornadoes and homicidal survivalists. He is also a photographer whose scenic work has been used commercially.More ↓Less ↑
At least 100, and perhaps as many as several hundred, Christian pastors on Sunday will speak out on biblical issues and the political candidates on the November election ballot in direct violation of Internal Revenue Service regulations.
Then they’ll package up recordings or transcripts of their sermons and send them to the IRS, with a dare to the government agency to come after them for their comments.
Ministers, although smaller in numbers, have done exactly that for the last two years. But of all the direct violations of the IRS ban on ministers addressing politics from their pulpits, only one investigation was begun, and it was dropped almost immediately, according to Kevin Theriot, a senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which is organizing this year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
The essence of the program is to create a challenge to the IRS rules adopted in 1954 at the behest of then–Sen. Lyndon Johnson that prohibit any speech from a church pulpit favoring or opposing a political candidate.
The rules were adopted after Johnson found himself bearing the brunt of critical comments from Christian pastors concerned about his behavior in Washington.
Before then, according to the ADF, pastors spoke freely from their pulpits even about specific candidates, issues and elections.
“The IRS should not be used as a political tool to advance the agenda of radical groups bent on silencing the voice of the church and inhibiting religious freedom,” Erik Stanley, also a senior counsel for the ADF, said. “It is ironic that a group with a name like ‘Americans United for Separation of Church and State’ continues to exploit a scheme of massive government monitoring and surveillance of churches.”
He said the real impact of the rules adopted under Johnson’s leadership is that pastors are muzzling themselves for fear of an IRS investigation.
“Rather than risk confrontation, many pastors have self-censored their speech, afraid to apply the teachings of Scripture to specific candidates or elections. As in years past, the participants in Pulpit Freedom Sunday 2010 are taking a stand against being intimidated into sacrificing their First Amendment rights,” he said.
The event was the focus of a recent conversation between Fox News host Glenn Beck and David Barton of the Wallbuilders organization that documents the nation’s Christian heritage:
In 2008, there were nearly three dozen pastors from 22 states involved in the effort. The pastors made specific suggestions for the election ballot based on the candidates’ positions on biblical issues.
Then they took their sermons and sent them to the IRS, hoping to spark an audit that could be used as a constitutional challenge to the regulations.
In 2009, there were some 84 pastors participating.
Theriot told WND the IRS is in an even smaller box this year, because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, which determined that businesses could not even be told what they can or cannot say.
“This is a really tough one for the IRS. They’re telling pastors what they can and cannot say from the pulpit,” he said. “I think the IRS realizes they’ve got a serious constitutional issue here.”
The Pulpit Freedom Sunday is part of the ADF Pulpit Initiative, which is set up to secure First Amendment rights of pastors in the pulpit.
“Pastors and churches shouldn’t live in fear of being punished or penalized by the government – in this case, the IRS,” said Stanley. “ADF is not trying to get politics into the pulpit; we want to get government out of the pulpit. 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.”
ADF said organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have taken advantage of the vagueness of the tax law and have reported churches to the IRS in an attempt to remove their tax-exempt status.
One recent example is Americans United’s complaint against Pastor H. Wayne Williams of South Dakota, who voiced his preference for a particular candidate for governor.
WND also reported 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 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.
ADF said Pastor Gus Booth had preached on moral issues as a part of the Alliance Defense Fund’s Pulpit Initiative that 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,” ADF said.
In a WND column, Dave Welch, founder of the U.S. Pastor Council, condemned the current opinions of many pastors, such as, “I can’t be too political because I have both Democrats and Republicans in my church.”
Or, “We should focus on evangelism and not get caught up in politics.”
Instead, he said, the more accurate perspective is from Ellis Sandoz, whose book “Political Sermons of the Founding Era” sheds light on the issue.
There, he wrote, “The political culture of this country was not only all the things it is most frequently said to be … but was deeply rooted in the core religious consciousness articulated above all by the preachers; theirs were pulpits of a new nation with a privileged, providential role in world history.
“The collapse of sound theology in regards to the role Christians play in general and that the pulpits serve in particular as anchors to ‘the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God’ is still a primary root cause of the disconnect between Christians and our suffrage,” Welch continued.
“What our founders understood was that our vote is a trust of authority given by God to another person to use that authority for God’s purpose. What most Christians today believe is that to vote is an optional act that we perform if convenient and largely driven by our own needs, desires and views,” he said. “Hence, a person who claims to be Christian can vote for a Barack Hussein Obama, the singularly most dedicated Marxist and anti-American and most unqualified president to hold the executive office in our history. Even more common are the Christians who vote by their glaring absence – they just don’t show up.
“The bottom line is that the pulpits of this nation had better get back to the business of preaching the undiluted, uncompromised word of God as applied to all vital current issues and then demand that Christians vote those principles,” he said.
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.”
If you would like to sound off on this issue, participate in today’s WND Poll.