This past Sunday, the Alliance Defense Fund expected nearly 500 church pastors nationwide to participate in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." The event, organized for four consecutive years by ADF, is designed to challenge a 1954 amendment to the
501( c) 3 tax code that doesn't allow nonprofits to participate in political campaigns. The law is often referred to as the "Johnson Amendment" because Lyndon Johnson, a U.S. Senator at the time, introduced and advocated its passage.
As Richard Hammar explains in the 2011 Church & Clergy Tax Guide:
This limitation has an unusual and unfortunate history. It was proposed in 1954 by then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas as a floor amendment to the tax code, and it was passed without explanation. Apparently, Senator Johnson was attempting to limit the political activities of a private foundation that had supported one of his opponents in a Texas election. It is clear that few, if any, Senators contemplated in 1954 that the newly enacted limitation could be used to threaten the tax-exempt status of churches. However, the limitation is worded in absolute terms—prohibiting any attempts by churches or any other tax-exempt organizations to participate or intervene in a political campaign—and therefore does pose a significant threat to churches.
The goal of "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" is to get "the Johnson Amendment declared unconstitutional—and once and for all remove the ability of the IRS to censor what a pastor says from the pulpit," according to an ADF website created for the event. In 2008, 33 pastors preached on political matters for "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," then sent copies of their sermons to the IRS. In 2009, 84 did the same, while last year, about 100 did so. Each year, including this year, ADF has agreed to defend—for free—any IRS attempts to prosecute participating pastors.
So far, no such challenges have occurred.
Articles and editorials about this year's event showed up nationally in notable newspapers and websites.
The Los Angeles Times, in an opinion piece by its editorial board, warned pastors to "choose their words wisely" and admonished the IRS to enforce the law and pursue any pastors who participated. Glenn Beck hosted guests on his newly launched website to discuss the initiative.
The Tennessean, in a news article, interviewed Hammar (also senior editor of the Church Law & Tax Report and ChurchLawAndTax.com) and Frank Sommerville (an editorial advisor for Church Law & Tax Report and ChurchLawAndTax.com) about the event and its significance:
The ban on nonprofit political endorsements dates to the 1950s. Lyndon B. Johnson was mad at nonprofits that opposed his re-election, so 'he rammed these rules through to punish his opponents,' said Richard Hammar, editor of Church Law and Tax Report.
The IRS has not punished any pastors involved in Pulpit Freedom events. Hammar said both conservative and liberal churches often ignore the ban without consequences.
And then later:
Frank Sommerville, a Dallas-based attorney who advises nonprofits and churches, said the IRS has not investigated any churches since 2009, after a judge ruled that an investigation of a Minnesota megachurch was invalid. The agency must draft new procedures before launching any new church investigations, Sommerville said.
Christianity Today, a Managing Your Church sister publication, also covered Pulpit Freedom Sunday this week.
The current law, along with "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" and its surrounding media coverage, raise several important, and timely, questions as Election Day fast approaches:
- Should churches take up such a cause as this? One pastor interviewed by the local NBC affiliate in Tyler, Texas (about two hours east of Dallas), said he felt the initiative distracts churches from spreading the Good News;
- What legal and tax ramifications might churches face should their pastors use their pulpits for endorsements or other politically related messages? Recent history suggests consequences are minimal at best, but that's not a guarantee that aggressive enforcement by the IRS won't come in the future;
- What about churches that want to host political candidates? In this week's ChurchLawAndTax.com Q&A, Richard Hammar explains the parameters churches need to set up in order to legally host a candidate without jeopardizing their tax status.
How does your church view this issue and answer these questions?
For more help on tax-exemption questions and matters of church and state, the following resources may help:
- Pastor, Church & Law, Volume 4: Liability & Church and State Issues
- Understanding Your Tax-Exempt Status
- The 2011 Church & Clergy Tax Guide
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