Endorsing Candidates from the Pulpit
"Pulpit Freedom Sunday" raises questions as Election Day draws near.

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:

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations

Comments

Displaying 1–6 of 6 comments

Azahara

July 19, 2013  6:08am

Our Pastor is participating. I have to say, that too many of our brerethn have drank the cool aid. If we do not discuss the reasons behind our current administrations plot and plans, the America as we know it will be gone. A president deeply rooted in Muslim heritage and socialism is going to take over our country if we stand idly by. Too many of our congregants have made a relationship with God very one sided. And since our Churches have become Social clubs of thousands of people being rushed through a 1 hour service to get more in, we have denied people a possibility to really find out who God is. People don't worship in The House of God , They worship the House Of God . We participated yesterday since we will be joining other congregations next week for a community wide Communion Service . We had about 2% of our people walk out. Guess what I am proud that my church family is aware of where we are headed and will stand up and be counted. At the close of our service yesterday, people filled the altars praying for our country, our Leaders, and our President. Go to the Bible, you will find on numerous occasions where spiritual leaders were Gods mouth peace to declare a pending judgment if the current courses were not changed.Please everyone, pray for our country, but do not be persuaded by the enemy of the cross that we have no rights.GOD BLESS THE USA!!!!!!!

Report Abuse

Tony

October 16, 2011  7:44pm

Our country's founding is replete with examples of preachers confronting the political system that held Americans in bondage. Preachers routinely were political in the days until the Johnson Amendment. Would there have been an American Revolution without them?

Report Abuse

Steve

October 11, 2011  10:20am

Churches should be focused on ministering and preaching the Word. Give to Ceasar what is Ceasar and give to God what is God's - the pulpit should belong to God's agenda, not a political candidate's!

Report Abuse

Michelle Dowell

October 05, 2011  3:02pm

Jarrod, We wanted to focus primarily on the tax implications of this for churches. Quotes from tax professionals are what we wanted to be sure to include. If you'd like to see quotes from a participant, here is a newspaper article that includes an interview with a participant. Best regards, Michelle Dowell, editorial coordinator

Report Abuse

Rodrigo

October 05, 2011  2:35pm

It's stunts like this that make the law look ridiculous. Surely there are better ways to change a bad law than this. Is there no legislative remedy? It's hard to teach people to respect the law when groups like this are trying so hard to violate it.

Report Abuse

Jarrod

October 05, 2011  2:32pm

So how many pastors actually participated? Did ANYONE try to break the law from the pulpit? I expected to hear one of those people quoted. But the silence in this article is deafening. This is the first time I've seen a story reporting on an event in which, apparently, the reporter could find no one who participated.

Report Abuse
Recent Posts
Subscribe to Church, Law & Tax

Resources

Understanding an IRS Audit

Understanding an IRS Audit

Cover your bases in the areas of greatest risk of audits.
Lay Counseling Safety

Lay Counseling Safety

Manage the legal and ethical risks that arise in lay counseling and other spiritual care ministries.