Pastors challenge restricted speech on Pulpit Freedom Sunday

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In what is becoming an annual event, pastors across the country recently challenged the Internal Revenue Service's ban on political advocacy in churches for the third year in a row.

On September 26th, roughly 100 pastors in nearly 30 states participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. What did they do? They preached the Bible and what it says about certain hot button social issues and, in some cases, how the positions of candidates for public office compare to Biblical standards.  

The churches say they are exercising their right to free speech. But an increasing number of activist groups – like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State – are trying to force them to abandon their rights to free speech by threatening them with the IRS.

The problem is not new, though it is growing. It started in 1954 with an IRS regulation called the Johnson Amendment. It was sponsored by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. Historical documents state that he was motivated by the fact that two well-known not-for-profits were campaigning for his opponent.

Supporters of the Johnson Amendment say churches give up the right to endorse candidates in exchange for tax-exempt status. They call this a subsidy which should be forfeited by those who violate the amendment.

That might sound clear cut until you consider that many not-for-profit groups are permitted to openly evaluate candidates based on the values expressed by their organizations. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which sponsors Pulpit Freedom Sunday, says these groups are tax-exempt, but the IRS does not subject them to the speech restrictions placed on churches.

They include: Civic leagues; labor, agricultural, or horticultural associations; business leagues; chambers of commerce; real estate boards; boards of trade; professional football leagues; clubs organized for pleasure, recreation, and other nonprofit purposes; fraternal beneficiary societies; and cemeteries.

According to Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the ADF, activist groups use the IRS as a hammer to force pastors into giving up their First Amendment rights. Stanley said in a press release on the ADF Web site:

"Pastors have a right to speak about biblical values from the pulpit without fear of punishment. No one should be able to use the government to intimidate pastors into giving up their constitutional rights. The government can’t demand that a church give up its right to tax-exempt status simply because the pastor exercises his First Amendment rights in the pulpit. Groups like Americans United [for the Separation of Church and State] intentionally trigger IRS investigations that will silence churches through fear, intimidation, and disinformation."

In an article posted on in 2008, Stanley asserted:

"Nonprofit organizations are exempted because they are not profit-makers. If citizens are already taxed on their individual incomes, taxing their participation in a voluntary organization from which they derive no monetary gain amounts to double taxation.

"Churches are all the more tax exempt. Church tax exemption is not a gift, nor is it a subsidy, as some disingenuously contend. As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, the power to tax involves the power to destroy, and churches have always been exempt from taxation under the principle that there is no surer way to destroy religion than to begin taxing it."


What is the ADF? Does it represent a political party?

Here is how the ADF describes itself on its Web site: ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family."

Officially, the ADF is not affiliated with or limited to any political party. However, Stanley asserts that those who are trying to rob pastors of their free speech rights tend to have a particular political leaning.

"The intimidation of churches by leftist groups using the IRS has grown to a point that ADF has no choice but to respond", said Stanley in a news release. "The number of threats being reported to ADF is growing because of the aggressive campaign to unlawfully silence the church. IRS rules don’t trump the Constitution, and the First Amendment certainly trumps the Johnson amendment."


Opponents of the ADF

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) , which describes itself as an independent, non-profit, non-partisan media and consumer watchdog group, says the ADF is hoping to “goad the IRS into coming after them.” The group claims that the pastors record their sermons and send them to the IRS because they want to be challenged and have a reason to file a lawsuit against the IRS.

The CMD quoted Barry Lynn, the executive director of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, as saying the churches have a lot to lose. “Tax exemption is not a right; it’s a privilege that comes with certain restrictions.”

The ADF’s Erik Stanley answers Lynn’s claim this way on

"How ironic is it that those who publicly wave the ‘separation of church and state’ banner are the loudest voices demanding that the federal government entangle itself in the most intimate church business, namely the content of pastors’ sermons? Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group that has made its name using the tax man as an axe man, recently wrote, ‘Constitutional violations do not get grandfathered in simply because of the passage of time.’”

Not all pastors agree with the ADF's methods.

“I think pastors need the freedom to speak to specific issues that have validity in a biblical sense, such as not committing murder – murder is both a biblical and legal issue. Where this becomes a gray area is in the realm of endorsing specific candidates for public office", Pastor Lonnie Scott of Bremerton, Washington, told AccountingWEB.

"And there I have a slight problem with the Church becoming a public political forum. I believe pastors need to be able to preach to issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and can effectively do so without endorsing a candidate or party. In Canada and in Sweden is it against the federal law to preach against homosexuality. Pastors can get arrested for doing so", Scott said.


What does the IRS have to say?

Not much. They write letters to churches they suspect of political advocacy. But revoking a church’s tax-exempt status is something that is rarely done. In the last 50 years, it has happened twice, according to a Fox News report.

Andrew Walsh, a professor at Trinity College who specializes in religion in politics, spoke to Fox News on this subject.

"There's a tension here between the desires of the religious leaders to say important things in the public marketplace and the IRS rules, and so most of the time, the IRS does not enforce these rules", Walsh said.

Most Americans remember the flap caused when then-Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama was endorsed from the pulpit by his pastor. Reverend Jeremiah Wright of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago urged the congregation to vote for Obama, an action expressly prohibited by the IRS.

The IRS did investigate a speech given by Obama at the United Church of Christ national conference. In a certified letter, Marsha Ramirez, IRS director, EO Examinations, wrote:

"Our concerns are based on articles posted on several Web sites including the church's which state the United States Presidential Candidate Senator Barack Obama addressed nearly 10,000 church members gathered at the United Church of Christ's biennial General Synod at the Hartford Civic Center on June 23, 2007. In addition, 40 Obama volunteers staffed campaign tables outside the center to promote his campaign."

Wright’s bold violations of the Johnson Amendment were probably the best publicized examples in the amendment’s history. Yet, Wright’s church did not lose its tax-exempt status.

David Masci, a senior researcher with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said clergy endorse candidates with some regularity across the country in violation of the rules.

"Basically, unless someone snitches on the church to the IRS, I don't think they are sending people out to churches to look for this", said Masci."It doesn't seem to be something the IRS devotes a lot of resources to."


What does all this mean for the Alliance Defense Fund?

The ADF's stated purpose in sponsoring Pulpit Freedom Sunday is not to find a reason to sue, in spite of what opponents claim. The ADF is hoping to call attention to those who unfairly target pastors and churches with threats in an effort to squelch opinions they don’t like. The ADF seeks “to challenge the tactics of groups that use the Internal Revenue Service to intimidate churches and pastors into silence on important issues of the day.”

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