By Daphna Berman
Some 1,500 pastors are expected to publicly endorse political candidates and openly violate IRS law this coming weekend as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
The brainchild of the Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom, the public effort is expected to draw much media attention—but with few legal repercussions.
Because of the Johnson Amendment, enacted in 1954 and sponsored by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, charities, religious groups and other organizations claiming tax exempt status as 501(c)3 non-profits are politically limited. According to the law, they “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.” In 1987, Congress strengthened the ban, clarifying that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates.
But the IRS does little to enforce it. Today, nearly all churches are tax exempt and violations on both sides of the political fence are common.
“This is the most ignored U.S. law—with the possible exception of the littering law,” one prominent tax attorney told In the Moment.
Stephen Colbert, who took on the issue on his nightly political satire show, The Colbert Report, described Pulpit Freedom Sunday as a time “when the thrill of lengthy sermons finally meets the excitement of IRS tax policy.”
“This is another example of President Obama’s war on religion, which he cleverly passed in 1954,” Colbert added.
Pastor Jim Garlow, a leader of the movement, and a guest on Colbert’s show, said that Sunday will allow religious leaders to “reclaim what was lost” as a result of the law. “There should be no government intrusion into the life of the church at all,” he said.
Alliance Defending Freedom, according to the group’s website, “does not endorse or oppose political parties or candidates, nor does it urge allegiance to any political party or candidate.” It does, however, “believe that churches and pastors have the freedom to plainly speak Scriptural truth about the qualifications of candidates for public office – regardless of candidates’ political affiliation.
“If the IRS chooses to enforce the Johnson Amendment against a pastor who participated, then we’re prepared to litigate that issue and protect that pastor’s constitutional rights,” Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the organization, has said. “If they don’t, then I think Pulpit Freedom Sunday is going to continue to grow year after year.”
But tax attorneys said the issue has little to do with the constitution and much more to do with IRS law. “Organizations have a choice: if they want to exercise their first amendment rights, they shouldn’t apply for and benefit for tax-exempt rights,” the tax attorney said.
In 2006, the IRS said it investigated 44 churches out of 237 church and non-church referrals. They verified “improper political activity” and issued “written advisories” in 26, but did not revoke tax-exempt status in any cases
When Pulpit Freedom Sunday began four years ago, 33 pastors participated. That number grew to 539 last year and is expected to pass 1,500 on Sunday. Pastors are being encouraged to videotape their sermons and send copies to the IRS.
The issue came to a head in 1992 when a pastor at the Church at Pierce Creek in upstate New York took out a full-page ad in USA Today in which he slammed Bill Clinton’s policies as a “rebellion to God’s laws.” The ad also solicited tax-deductible donations for the church. The IRS let them off with a warning to stop politicking, but the church refused, went to court, and lost—both in federal court and again, in federal appeals court.