By Ken Berry
The pastor at your local church may have delivered a "fire and brimstone" sermon last week that touched on an unusual topic: the presidential election. On October 7, more than 1,000 pastors across the country - some estimates put the number closer to 1,500 - participated in a collaborated effort to defy the IRS by endorsing political candidates.
The message from the clergy to the IRS on "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" was clear: You can't tell us what we can and can't talk about to our congregations.
Under IRS regulations issued back in 1954, organizations that maintain tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, are strictly prohibited from partisan campaigning on behalf of or against a political candidate. This so-called "Johnson amendment" was introduced by former President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) when he was running for senator in Texas. Although LBJ was aiming to quiet other nonprofit organizations that opposed him, churches that have 501(c)(3) exemptions were swept up in the prohibition.
Despite this long-standing regulation, the IRS has largely been powerless, or unwilling, to enforce the rule in recent years. In 2004, the IRS created the Political Activities Compliance Initiative, which investigated dozens of churches in the three national elections in 2004, 2006, and 2008. However, in 2009 a US District Court in Minnesota ruled the IRS no longer had the appropriate staff to investigate churches after authority for initiating such examinations was shifted. In the meantime, new procedures for conducting church audits are still pending. The IRS hasn't broken its silence on this issue while it remains on hold.
Now several tax-exempt organizations are taking a bold, proactive stance. The vocal Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian ministry based in Arizona that organized the first Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008, believes the law violates First Amendment rights by muzzling the clergy. It wants to press the matter until it's decided in court. "Every pastor and every church has the right to decide what their pastor preaches from the pulpit and to not have that dictated to them by the IRS," said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the group.
To further this purpose, many of the preachers who stated their political beliefs on Pulpit Freedom Sunday are sending a tape of their sermon to the IRS. "There should be a separation between church and state," said Stanley. "The government does not control what happens inside a church." The next move is up to the government.