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The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been given a green light to move ahead with its lawsuit asserting that the Internal Revenue Service has failed to audit churches whose ministers preach politics from the pulpit.
But the pastors are happy with the move, because they’ve been trying to arrange to bring that very battle to court for several years now.
The pastors, in an initiative organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, have been preaching what they believe the Bible says regarding current political issues and then informing the IRS of their actions. They’ve been trying to convince the IRS to bring a case against one of the ministers.
They believe the IRS intentionally is ignoring their statements to avoid a confrontation over the 1954 Johnson Amendment that purports to silence some speech in the United States through IRS regulations.
The ministers believe that when the issue is decided, the IRS will lose the argument, and the agency wants to avoid that.
The IRS had filed a motion to dismiss FFRF’s case, but U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman this week denied the motion.
“The FFRF has standing to seek an order requiring the IRS to treat religious organizations no more favorably than it treats the foundation,” the ruling said.
Dan Cummins pastor of Bridlewood Church in Bullard, Texas, gives the background.
“For the past five years it has been the goal of Alliance Defending Freedom, through its Pulpit Freedom Sunday initiative, to challenge the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment, which places restrictions upon churches and pastors to exercise their First Amendment rights,” he said.
“To do so, a church must be sued by the IRS, getting the issue into the legal system where it can be challenged – there must be real damages incurred or civil rights violated; it cannot be challenged under hypothetical circumstances. In the past 59 years, the IRS has not sued or revoked the tax-exempt status of any church. Apparently the IRS knows they will lose on the constitutional issue,” said Cummins.
The Johnson Amendment, introduced by Democratic Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, imposed restrictions on political speech by ministers.
Pastors who spoke with WND believe that the only way to get rid of the Johnson Amendment is to get audited by the IRS and have the case go to the Supreme Court, where they believe it will be ruled unconstitutional.
The Black Robe Regiment is a group of pastors who insist the First Amendment doesn’t stop at sanctuary doors. They argue that all laws are based on someone’s morality and point to the time-tested Judeo-Christian principles espoused by the Founding Fathers.
On its website, the group explains: “Since the 1954 passage of the Johnson Amendment the secular progressive left has led a campaign to suppress the ability of faith leaders to speak on a whole variety of topics from the pulpit. Mostly centered around the political sphere these efforts have effectively stifled all but the most brazen of pastors. Although no church … has had their tax status revoked since this law was enacted the mere threat suppresses their ability to be the Godly ordained Guardians of Our Culture.
“It is time that our pulpits again become the place for biblical based oratory on all matters that [affect] our Christian walk through our secular society. But first it is important to know your rights and freedoms.”
Pastors like Jim Garlow of Skyline Church in San Diego have stood solidly on the side of those who believe that if the IRS did take action, it would go all the way to the Supreme Court, and the IRS would lose.
“Perhaps the atheists would be better served if they would invest their energy in helping to protect the First Amendment, rather than trying to rip away at the historically accurate definition of ‘separation of church and state’ as intended by Jefferson’s well known ‘wall of separation’ statement in the famous Danbury Baptist letter,” Garlow told WND.
He believes that in their haste to attack all that is Christian, FFRF doesn’t realize it’s setting its own trap.
“How short-sighted of them to not be able to see that their ‘religion of secular atheism’ is also protected by that same amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” he said.
Pastor Jack Minor is another church leader who participates each year in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
“God works in mysterious ways,” he said of FFRF’s lawsuit.
Like many educational and charitable entities registered under Section 501(c)3 of the federal tax code, tax-exempt religious organizations are prohibited from engaging in partisan politics. FFRF alleges that the IRS has failed to enforce that portion of the code for churches. The atheist group asserts it’s a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Additionally, FFRF claims that the IRS is giving “preferential treatment” to the tax-exempt churches over other groups, such as itself.
“The time for a free ride for churches is over,” said FFRF’s co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The rest of us pay so much more in taxes because clergy pay so much less. If these churches – which are accountable to no one in government, get so many favors – are allowed to engage in tax-exempt politicking, it would be the ruination of our democracy.”
Cummins, founder of Come Pray With Me, is happy to see FFRF’s lawsuit moving forward.
“I would find it very ironic that what 1,580 pastors have not been able to do in the past five years by blatantly violating the law (preaching politically explicit sermons), the FFRF would accomplish for us,” he said.
“What the FFRF will discover if they get the issue before the court – they will prove ADF’s point and will win our case. The very thing they are trying to prevent – conservative, biblical political speech from the pulpit – they will exonerate as constitutional.”
The judge’s ruling comes on the heels of a commission established by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who urged the IRS to forgo the rules against politics in the pulpit, because the federal government has no business telling pastors what they can and can’t preach.
Minor says he and other pastors “may one day get to thank” FFRF for overturning the Johnson Amendment.
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 he 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.