On October 2, 2011, pastors across the country are going to participate in a yearly act of civil disobedience: they're going to risk their 501(c) 3 tax exempt status by openly endorsing or supporting political candidates from the pulpit on Sunday.
The Christian Science Monitor asks:
Why break the law on purpose?
These pastors, most of them evangelical, are part of an effort to bait the Internal Revenue Service into fining one of the churches or taking away its tax-exempt status. If the IRS takes the bait, then that case will be challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court in hopes of overturning the law.
The law bars houses of worship and other types of nonprofits from participating in political campaigns on behalf of – or in opposition to – any candidate for public office. It was passed in 1954 with help from then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson after nonprofit groups nearly defeated him in an election. Up until then, American churches were free to align with politicians – or rail against them.
The Alliance Defense Fund and Speak Up Movement who are self-declared ADF supporters, are behind the push to enlist pastors to the cause. Since 2008 they've been trying to get pastors to participate in the autumnal protest called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The Speak Up Movement site states:
ADF is actively seeking to represent churches or pastors who are under investigation by the IRS for violating the Johnson Amendment by preaching biblical Truth in a way that expresses support for – or opposition to – political candidates. ADF represents all of its clients free of charge.
The Pulpit Initiative is not about turning churches into political machines; it is about restoring the right of pastors to speak freely from their pulpits about all matters included in Scripture – even when Scripture is deeply relevant to a pending election or the quality of a candidate for office.
In 2008, 33 pastors from 22 different states participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The participating pastors preached sermons that compared the positions held by candidates with what Scripture says about those issues. The pastors then made specific recommendations about those candidates (including recommendations about whether the congregation should vote for or against them). Finally, the pastors brought their sermons to the attention of the IRS in the hopes that an audit of their churches would spark lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment.
In 2009, more than 80 pastors participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, and in 2010, nearly 100 pastors participated. As of this date, none of the participating churches have had their tax exemption revoked – nor have any received penalties from the IRS for what was said during their sermons.
The Christian Science Monitor is making a point of inferring that it is questionable whether churches should endorse political candidates:
Most religious groups (such as the one that publishes The Christian Science Monitor) do not endorse candidates – many of their followers would heartily protest. And they avoid direct partisan politics – other than taking stands on issues, which is legal under the law – in order to not become entangled with political parties and the mudslinging that comes with them.
Drawing this fine line between church and state, or between spiritual matters and electioneering, is a protection from government intrusion on organized religion. And it helps political parties from being controlled by a particular religion – something the Muslim world is actively debating, even killing over.
Still, many religious leaders, not just Evangelicals, do often cross this fine line.