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Preaching about scriptural principles and applying them to the positions of candidates for public office is not “political” speech, it’s “core religious expression from a spiritual leader to his congregants.”

That’s according to Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which reported today that nearly 1,600 pastors of churches across the nation participated in its Pulpit Initiative this past weekend.

The pastors deliberately applied biblical perspectives to the positions of candidates for public office in defiance of a regulation adopted by the Internal Revenue Service, the 1954 Johnson Amendment. ADF’s aim is to provoke a challenge from the IRS that would enable it file a lawsuit and defeat the regulation in court on constitutional grounds.

The Johnson Amendment bans churches and ministers from participating in, or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.

Supporters of the event, which began in 2008 with just 35 pastors, say the government simply cannot dictate to churches and ministers their sermon topics.

In a commentary at Townhall, Stanley said it was the “most successful Pulpit Freedom Sunday to date.”

He called it “an exercise in free speech that violates a flawed Internal Revenue Service rule,” insisting pastors who participated were “not engaging in a ‘political crusade.’”

What else is the IRS up to? A former Libertarian Party vice presidential candidate who says Barack Obama was unknown to him and his fellow Columbia University classmates says now the president is using the Internal Revenue Service to punish and silence him. Read it here.

“Instead, they are simply applying Scripture and theological doctrine to the positions held by the candidates running for office,” he said. “Pastors have been applying scriptural teaching to circumstances facing their congregations for centuries.

“This is not ‘political’ speech,” he said. “Rather, it’s core religious expression from a spiritual leader to his congregants. That kind of expression is at the very center of the freedom speech and religion protections in the First Amendment.”

Stanley said the issue is simple: Government cannot be allowed to condition a status, such as being tax-exempt, on the “surrender of a constitutionally protected freedom.”

Would churches, for example, be willing to give up their right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure in exchange for tax-exempt status, or “if you want to maintain your right against cruel and unusual punishment, just give up your tax-exempt status?”

He explained that Democratic Sen. Lyndon Johnson got the amendment adopted in 1954 “with little notice as a means to silence non-profit groups that opposed his bid for re-election.”

“The government has no automatic right to the church’s money just because its pastor won’t give up his constitutionally protected right to free speech,” he said.

Pastors who participated found support and instructions 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 the issue, the circumstances of such cases vary widely. There was a case handled by the American Center for Law and Justice in 2000 in which 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 it 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.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom contends the New York church 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 the IRS action.

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 participated in the special Sunday event sent recordings of their sermons to the IRS, effectively throwing down the challenge to argue the free speech of ministers in open court.

In a conference call regarding the effort, Pastor John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio said it’s time that pastors in this country “choose truth over popularity.”

Jim Garlow, a prominent figure in the Pulpit Freedom 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.

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.”

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