The number of pastors standing up for their right to preach from their pulpits on politics is surging.
They call a ban on such speech a “cultural myth.”
In 2008, 35 pastors defied the IRS, which holds the position that church “organizations 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.”
The number of pastors boldly opposing the IRS rule grew to 539 in 2011 and is expected to be more than 1,500 on Oct. 7, during what organizers are calling “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”
The pastors find support and instructions on participating at pulpitfreedom.org, and they are backed by a legal team at the Alliance Defending Freedom.
While WND was told no church ever has lost its tax-exempt status over such issues, the circumstances of such cases vary widely. There was a case handled by the American Center for Law and Justice in 2000 where Branch Ministries of Binghamton, N.Y., had its tax-exempt status withdrawn after church officials bought full-page newspaper ads blasting Bill Clinton.
The decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The ACLJ said, “The ACLJ believes that this campaigning ban impermissibly infringes on the First Amendment rights of churches,” but added, “It is nevertheless the current law. Consequently, churches desiring to keep their tax-exempt status must stringently adhere to it.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State says it has sent 60,000 letters to churches in an effort to tell pastors that the law requires them to stay out of politics.
The group’s position is that churches are only tax-exempt because of the 501(c)3 provision in the tax code, which has been revoked at least once since 1954.
That was the year Democratic Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson inserted language into a tax bill designed to restrict outspoken political opponents from using their nonprofits to campaign against him. Known as the “Johnson Amendment,” it enabled the IRS to become a watchdog of America’s church pulpits.
“Any activity designed to influence the outcome of a partisan election can be construed as intervention,” the Americans United letter declares. “If the IRS determines that your house of worship has engaged in unlawful intervention, it can revoke the institution’s tax-exempt status or levy significant fines on the house of worship or its leaders.”
The letter then recalls, “In 1995, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of a Binghamton, N.Y., church for buying a full-page ad in USA Today opposing a 1992 presidential candidate.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom contends the AU letter is misleading and disingenuous, explaining that the church in New York had its “determination letter” revoked, not its “tax exempt” status. The distinction is crucial, ADF told WND, because there was basically no effect on the church from this IRS action.
Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for Americans Defending Freedom, told WND that churches don’t need a determination letter from the IRS to be considered tax-exempt.
“IRS section 508(c)1 (a) automatically exempts churches, and no advance determination letter is necessary,” he explained.
He said that some churches get the letter anyway, but it is not necessary.
In essence, the IRS claims it has the ability to keep churches out of the political realm, while ADF insists that position isn’t constitutional.
ADF noted that a scholar who studied the issue 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,’” ADF said.
Pastors who participate in the special Sunday event send recordings of their sermons to the IRS, effectively throwing down the challenge to argue the free speech of ministers in open court.
“It is important to note that in our opinion provisions of the tax code are unconstitutional,” says a letter from the Alliance Defending Freedom legal team. “Specifically, any IRS attempt to censor a pastor’s sermon from the pulpit is unconstitutional.
“That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom started Pulpit Freedom Sunday, to protect a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit without fearing government censorship or control.”
ADF said: “After all, it’s the job of the pastor and the church leadership not the IRS to decide what is said from the pulpit. No pastor should ever fear IRS censorship or punishment when he stands in the pulpit to preach.”
In a conference call regarding the effort, Pastor John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio agreed that no church has ever lost its 501(c)3 status for teaching Bible principals.
Hagee says that every Sunday is “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” and it’s time that pastors in this country “choose truth over popularity.”
Jim Garlow, a prominent figure in the Pulpit Freedom Sunday movement, said, “We didn’t receive tax exempt status as churches because we did a swap saying we would not speak out on governmental issues.
“What the government can tax it can control, and what it can control it can kill,” he explained.
About the Johnson Amendment, Garlow said Johnson’s chief aide later admitted that they didn’t have churches in mind when the senator pushed the tax language through the Senate.
But, Garlow says, “This became the first time government intruded into the pulpit in America’s history.”
WND attempted to get comment from Americans United but received no response.
Hagee said during a half-hour-long conference call, “The evil day is not coming, the evil day is here.”
He continued, “Christians are being trampled by the secular left.”
He then urged pastors to get involved with educating their church members about biblical principles.
“Don’t get confused with left or right, or Democrat or Republican, vote the Bible,” he said.
“God’s Word is against homosexuality and abortion. You know the party that is for those things, therefore you cannot support them,” he continued.
He said that he tells his church not to go into a voting booth as a “union member,” or any other label, but to go into the voting booth with the Bible in mind.
He then had a word for Christians who don’t show up to vote.
“Fifty percent of evangelicals don’t even vote. How insane is that?”
Garlow said, “We need to see a turn in this country in the next 30 days.”
A short video about Pulpit Freedom Sunday:
ADF points out that before 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.”