Thirty-three preachers across the country say they will defy tax laws Sunday by endorsing specific political candidates from the pulpit and preaching about their moral qualifications.
They are part of a campaign called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, organized by the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a group of Christian lawyers who work for socially conservative causes.
The Pulpit Freedom Campaign has amassed the pastors to cooperate in a mass violation of a 1954 law that bars religious organizations and nonprofit groups that accept tax-deductible contributions from endorsing specific candidates. The ADF thinks the law is unconstitutional and lined up churches earlier this year willing to commit civil disobedience for a test case headed for the Supreme Court.
“This is something we’ve committed the resources to,” said ADF senior legal counsel Erik Stanley. “What we want to do is have a reasonable constitutional addressing of the issues. For 54 years, the Internal Revenue Service has studiously avoided any court confrontation over their ability to regulate a pastor’s sermon.”
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said his organization will monitor who takes part.
“Taking part in this reckless stunt is a one-way ticket to loss of tax exemption,” he said “Pastors who violate the law can expect their churches to be reported to the IRS the first thing Monday morning.”
The ADF says Mr. Lynn’s group need not bother; the 33 pastors will send copies of their sermons to the IRS themselves. The ADF is not releasing the names of participating clergy for fear of hecklers.
“Churches are not tax exempt because of some bargain they make with the government,” Mr. Stanley said. “Being tax-exempt is part of freedom of religion; otherwise the government could tax churches out of existence. Now the government is telling churches you can be tax-exempt if you don’t speak out on a certain topic.”
An ADF spokesman said a congregation in Richmond is participating, but none in Maryland or the District. The 33 churches range from a group of 20 to several megachurches.
Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, said he had planned to take part but pulled back due to other commitments.
“The preacher should be able to preach a message from the Bible that states a biblical position and then goes the additional step of saying so-and-so is against the issue and is just flat wrong,” he said Friday.
“As an African American, if it hadn’t been for a free pulpit during slavery and the civil rights movement, African Americans would not enjoy the benefits they do. The pulpit needs to be a conscience for the nation,” he said.
The IRS released a statement saying it “will monitor the situation and take action as appropriate.”
The ADF is contesting the 1954 “Johnson Amendment,” named after then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson who inserted language into the IRS code that prohibited nonprofit groups, including churches, from endorsing or opposing candidates for political office. His efforts were aimed at two anti-communist nonprofit groups that opposed his re-election to the Senate, but had far greater effect on America’s churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.
The ADF’s campaign sparked a Sept. 8 protest letter to IRS Director Michael Chesman from Marcus Owens, the former director of the IRS’ division of tax-exempt organizations, and tax attorneys Cono Namoroto and Mortimer Caplan. All three said the ADF is helping churches violate federal law.
“It’s as if I told people how to cheat on their income taxes,” Mr. Owens said. “This raises questions as to whether the ADF has jeopardized its own tax-exempt status.”
The Supreme Court has ruled in several cases, he added, that Congress can limit the free speech rights of charities so they do not use tax-deductible contributions for support or opposition to political candidates.
Mr. Stanley disagreed, saying no case has ever questioned the government’s ability to regulate a pastor’s sermon. From 1788, when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, to 1954, he said, “Churches were free to endorse or oppose candidates and they did so. The record shows they exercised that right responsibly.”