The Internal Revenue Service closed its investigation of a Minnesota pastor who advised congregants in a sermon last year not to vote for Barack Obama.
The examination was closed due to a procedural problem.
Pastor Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church was among dozens of pastors across the country who boldly preached on social and political issues and endorsed presidential candidates from the pulpit last September.
"Pastors have a right to speak freely from their pulpits. Something is very wrong in America when free speech is held hostage by bungling bureaucracies," said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, which led the September initiative.
"This latest action from the IRS continues to leave churches in limbo when it comes to speaking freely from their pulpits," Stanley added in a statement Tuesday. "It illustrates everything that is wrong with the current enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. After an 11-month audit, it is disingenuous for the IRS to simply close the file and walk away as if nothing happened."
ADF organized an effort called the Pulpit Initiative ahead of the 2008 election, encouraging pastors to speak out on political issues and endorse or oppose political candidates. The initiative, the Christian legal firm said, was designed to secure the First Amendment rights of pastors in the pulpit.
"Churches can decide for themselves that they either do or don't want their pastors to speak about electoral candidates," ADF stated earlier. "The point of the Pulpit Initiative is very simple: the IRS should not be the one making the decision by threatening to revoke a church's tax-exempt status."
Non-profits are not allowed to participate in or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office, according to the 1954 Johnson Amendment.
After Booth of Warroad Church preached about the primary elections and later the general election, he sent the IRS a copy of his sermons.
The IRS launched an audit of the church in August for possible violation of tax-exempt status.
In a letter sent to the church early this month, however, the IRS stated that it stopped its investigation because of "a pending issue regarding the procedure used to initiate the inquiry."
The IRS may commence a future inquiry, the letter stated.
ADF attorneys are disappointed and accuse the IRS of running away from a court confrontation.
The IRS has issued increasingly vague guidance on the tax law while continuing to launch investigations and avoiding court review of the constitutionality of its actions, ADF argues.
"The IRS apparently has no desire to clarify the law for churches and has studiously avoided a court confrontation over this issue for years," Stanley explained. "They continue to vaguely interpret the law, leave churches guessing as to what the law actually means, and enforce the Johnson Amendment through fear and intimidation."
If the investigation continued, Stanley believes the Johnson Amendment would have eventually been struck down as unconstitutional.