ORLANDO (FBW)—The Alliance Defense Fund is recruiting pastors willing to pick a fight with the Internal Revenue Service in order to overturn a 55-year-old law it believes is resulting in unconstitutional pulpit “censorship.”
Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with ADF—an evangelical legal organization, spoke at a March 4 briefing for about 200 pastors, seeking ministers to participate in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” scheduled this year for Sept. 26.
The Orlando briefing was jointly sponsored by Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council and Florida Family Policy Council.
“Something is wrong in America when we allow the government to step into the pulpit and censor a pastor’s sermon,” Stanley said.
The censorship, according to Stanley, dates to the adoption in 1954 of the Johnson Amendment, offered by then US Senator Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, who introduced the provision in order to penalize two non-profit groups that were opposing his re-election.
The Johnson Amendment prohibits non-profit organizations—which includes churches—from participating on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office. Without any analysis of its possible ramifications and no committee consideration, the Johnson Amendment was adopted on a voice vote.
The result, according to Stanley, “overturned 200 years of American history of pastors speaking freely.”
Going back to colonial days when pastors were the “primary mouthpieces for independence,” Stanley said throughout American history pastors helped their congregations understand the political issues of their day, without fear of government intervention.
Since the adoption of the Johnson Amendment, however, Stanley said pastors have self-censored what they say about elections from the pulpit due to a “system of intimidation” from the Internal Revenue Service and liberal groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, fearing the loss of tax exempt status of their churches.
“This is the only place where federal law is allowed to restrict the speech of an individual after the fact, instead of telling you beforehand when the law is violated,” Stanley said of IRS regulations about the Johnson Amendment.
“It is intolerable. It’s time to remove the power from the IRS to censor sermons. It’s time to free pastors to shine the bright light of the Gospel in the area of politics and candidates,” he declared.
The ADF’s plan to overturn the Johnson Amendment is the “Pulpit Initiative,” with “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” as the central feature of the effort.
During the first two years of the effort, 117 pastors participated with the intention of “maneuvering” the IRS into federal court for the purpose of challenging the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment.
Stanley said only one church during the first two years was audited by the IRS, but because the pastor stood-up to the IRS with the backing of ADF, the audit was dropped after 11 months with no action taken.
Stanley said the IRS has been “very adept” at keeping this matter out of court, hoping instead that by intimidation it can silence pastors from preaching their biblical convictions related to elections—and avoid constitutional scrutiny of the Johnson Amendment.
“This is not about turning churches into political action committees. … This is not about promoting any particular candidate or political party,” Stanley insisted.
“In fact, this is not about political speech from the pulpit. When you as a pastor stand in your pulpit and you preach the Word of God to your congregation it is not political speech. It is core religious expression. You can’t get any more religious expression than a pastor preaching from the pulpit,” he added.
“This is about stopping government censorship of what pastors can and cannot say from the pulpit,” Stanley said.
Stanley noted that even pastors who believe it is wrong to speak about political candidates from the pulpit should still support the effort because it’s wrong for the government to censor religious speech.
To those pastors, Stanley said, “You should certainly agree with the principle that the pulpit should be free, and that pastors ought to be free to speak scriptural truth.”
He said pastors should also support the effort because elections have consequences.
“Votes translates into actions that effect people and that’s why elections are important. That why the light of scriptural truth must be shined in that area,” he said.
Stanley stressed that pastors who participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday can be confident that ADF will stand by them if the IRS challenges those churches’ tax exempt status.
“This is not some fly-by-night thing,” he said. “Our board has very prayerfully and very carefully considered this issue and has committed the full resources of the Alliance Defense Fund to this issue, not matter what it takes, not matter how long it takes until this issue gets resolved, one way or another, through federal court action that declares the Johnson Amendment unconstitutional or through some kind of legislative action.”
ADF was founded in 1994 by the leaders of 35 national ministries, including James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, Bill Bright and others concerned about the deterioration of religious liberty in America’s courts.
Stanley said he hopes “hundreds” of pastors will participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday this year.
“Never, ever, ever let the IRS intimidate you—or anybody else for that matter—intimidate you into not saying certain things from the pulpit that you feel God wants you to say, because the IRS is a paper tiger,” Stanley declared.
You must be login before you can leave a comment. Click here to Register if you are a new user.