Nearly 1,500 pastors in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico will participate in Alliance Defending Freedom's annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday by preaching biblical truth on the positions of electoral candidates from the pulpit to oppose IRS regulation of sermons.
The movement of pastors is against an Internal Revenue Service rule, the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which activist groups often use to silence churches by threatening their tax-exempt status. It states that tax-exempt organizations cannot "participate in, or intervene in ... any political campaign on behalf of – or in opposition to – any candidate for public office."
For the annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday on Oct. 7, registration rose from a record 1,050 to 1,477 last week and continues to grow as registration stays open through the date of the event, ADF, an alliance-building legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith, said in a statement Friday.
Last year, 539 pastors participated in the event. The growing movement is associated with the Pulpit Initiative, a legal effort designed to secure the free speech rights of pastors in the pulpit.
"Pastors should decide what they preach from the pulpit, not the IRS," Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley said in the statement. "It's outrageous for pastors and churches to be threatened or punished by the government for applying biblical teachings to all areas of life, including candidates and elections. The question is, 'Who should decide the content of sermons: pastors or the IRS?'"
Some of the participating pastors also send their taped sermons to the IRS.
"No government-recognized status can be conditioned upon the surrender of a constitutionally protected right," Stanley added. "No one would suggest a pastor give up his church's tax-exempt status if he wants to keep his constitutional protection against illegal search and seizure or cruel and unusual punishment. Likewise, no one should be asking him to give up his church's tax-exempt status to be able to keep his constitutionally protected right to free speech."
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center last year showed that two in three Americans are against churches endorsing one candidate over another.
LifeWay Research also found in a recent survey that 87 percent of pastors are not for endorsing candidates from the pulpit. "Clearly most pastors have opinions on who the best candidates are, and those convictions may be heavily dependent on biblical principles," Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research, said in a statement. "However, very few pastors choose to make those endorsements from the pulpit."
However, a national phone survey conducted by ADF and LifeWay Research with 1,000 randomly drawn senior pastors prior to last year's Pulpit Freedom Sunday found that nearly nine out of 10 Protestant pastors believe that the government should not regulate their sermons.
The goal of the pulpit freedom event is not to turn churches into political machines, ADF says, but rather to declare that sermons should not be regulated by the government, or in this case the IRS.
With new procedures for church audits pending, the IRS is not in a position to conduct new investigations. ADF says it hopes to eventually go to court to have the Johnson Amendment struck down as unconstitutional for its regulation of sermons, which are protected by the First Amendment.