Ever since 2008, there have been Christian pastors who each fall preach about whether the stated positions of various political candidates align with what the Bible teaches – in a direct challenge to the Internal Revenue Service regulation that censors such speech.
So far the IRS has not been willing to cross that line in the sand and confront them.
So the challenge will be raised again this year, with more than 1,050 ministers already signing up to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday on Oct. 7 – and tell their congregations about the statements and actions of local, state or national politicians, and what the Bible teaches that may agree or disagree with the candidates.
It’s part of the Pulpit Freedom Sunday of the Pulpit Initiative, which is a project of the Alliance Defending Freedom.
The organization is not shy about stating its goals.
“Alliance Defending Freedom hopes to eventually go to court to have the Johnson Amendment struck down as unconstitutional for its regulation of sermons, which are protected by the First Amendment,” officials explained today in their announcement about this year’s plans.
The “Johnson Amendment,” was put into place by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson from Texas in 1954 when he was facing public criticism from religious leaders over his behavior in Washington while he was campaigning for re-election.
His rule bans ministers from discussing electoral candidates from the pulpits, even though, logically, ministers’ speech is protected by the Constitution.
The ADF effort points out that before the amendment in 1954, “there were no restrictions on what churches could or couldn’t do with regard to speech about government and voting, excepting only a 1934 law preventing nonprofits from using a substantial part of their resources to lobby for legislation.”
Since Johnson’s amendment, “The IRS has steadfastly maintained that any speech by churches about candidates for government office, including sermons from the pulpit, can result in loss of tax exemption.”
So far, the number of pastors participating this year is double the number who participated a year ago.
They all have committed to “preach sermons that present biblical perspectives on the positions of electoral candidates. In so doing, they will exercise their constitutionally protected freedom to engage in religious expression from the pulpit…”
“Pastors should decide what they preach from the pulpit, not the IRS,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “It’s outrageous for pastors and churches to be threatened or punished by the government for applying biblical teachings to all areas of life, including candidates and elections. The question is, ‘Who should decide the content of sermons: pastors or the IRS?’”
There were 33 pastors participating during that first event in 2008, and it has increased each year since. Last year 539 participated and this year’s registration of 1,050 likely will grow before the event on Oct. 7.
“No government-recognized status can be conditioned upon the surrender of a constitutionally protected right,” Stanley explained. “No one would suggest a pastor give up his church’s tax-exempt status if he wants to keep his constitutional protection against illegal search and seizure or cruel and unusual punishment. Likewise, no one should be asking him to give up his church’s tax-exempt status to be able to keep his constitutionally protected right to free speech.”
The campaign explains that Johnson’s move in 1954 banished entities that are exempt from federal income tax from commenting on “any candidate for public office.”
“The Johnson Amendment was added to the tax code as a result of the political machinations of Lyndon B. Johnson who was running for re-election to the United States Senate. One scholar who studied this extensively concluded that the Johnson Amendment ‘is not rooted in constitutional provisions for separation of church and state…. Johnson was not trying to address any constitutional issue related to separation of church and state; and he did not offer the amendment because of anything that churches had done,’” the organization reported.
Pastors who participate send recordings of their sermons to the IRS, effectively throwing down the challenge to argue the free speech of ministers in open court.
WND columnist Les Kinsolving noted, “There are 29 categories of organizations considered exempt from federal income taxes under Section 501(c) of the tax code. Yet only organizations that fall within Section 501(c)(3) are subject to the speech restriction of the Johnson Amendment. All of the other categories receive the benefit of exemption from income taxes and can endorse or oppose political candidates if they so choose. Why?
“Organizations are only subject to this restriction because Lyndon B. Johnson inserted this amendment into Section 501(c)(3) in 1954 as a way of silencing two … organizations that were opposing his re-election to the U.S. Senate.”
He warned the Johnson Amendment “foists upon churches an unconstitutional choice: Surrender your constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion to get a tax exemption. Clearly, though, the government is not allowed to condition tax exemption, which is something to which churches are constitutionally entitled, on the surrender of the constitutionally protected right.”