Pulpit Freedom Sunday: Doubling Up

Some 1,300 pastors will take to the pulpit this Sunday to make the point that the Internal Revenue Service cannot tell them what to say or not say to their congregations about politics.

The yearly event, known as Pulpit Freedom Sunday, got a big boost this year — nearly doubling the number of pastors who signed up — at least in part because it is an election year, Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Erik Stanley, said. Pastors want their sermons to be relevant, and there is no better year than an election year to do that if the subject is campaign issues, he said.

Alliance Defending Freedom, itself described as a Christian legal ministry and exempt under the tax code, created the event to urge pastors to speak their minds, saying it is their First Amendment right of free speech and freedom of religion to do so. The event has grown each year since 2008, so far, largely unchecked by IRS.

IRS rules prohibit tax-exempt churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates, following the 1954 Johnson Amendment. Then-Senator Lyndon Johnson introduced the provision as an amendment to the Revenue Act of 1954. While there is speculation about why he did it, the result has remained the same: direct or indirect endorsements by church leaders in their official capacity are not allowed.

Watchdog groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the pastors are acting as shills for the Republican Party. Conservative religious leaders are not exactly excited about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, and are trying to mobilize their base, according to Rob Boston with AU.

Meanwhile the IRS’ hands have been tied since 2009 by a lack of authority to start investigations of churches. Someone at IRS must be deputized to make those decisions and no one has yet been named. Chances of the Treasury Department doing that before the November elections? Nil, said Marc Owens, a former IRS exempt organizations director.  The agency would not want to look like it is interfering in the campaign, he said.


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