The Christian legal group behind the Pulpit Initiative announced Tuesday that it will defend a South Dakota church that was reported to the Internal Revenue Service.
Alliance Defend Fund, which launched the Pulpit Initiative in 2008 to defend the right of pastors to speak freely from the pulpit, agreed to represent Liberty Baptist Tabernacle. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State had reported the church to the IRS on June 10 in an attempt to remove the church's tax-exempt status after its pastor voiced support for a gubernatorial candidate.
"Pastors and churches shouldn't live in fear of being punished or penalized by the government, yet that's precisely what Americans United wants," said ADF senior legal counsel Erik Stanley, in a statement. "Under the First Amendment, a pastor, not the IRS, determines what his sermon will say."
The AU and similar groups have tried to spark IRS investigations to silence churches through fear and intimidation.
"It's a contradiction for groups that say they believe in 'separation of church and state' to say it's the role of the IRS to decide what pastors can talk about in church without being investigated," Stanley said.
The Pulpit Initiative is part of a broader effort by ADF called the Church Project, which was launched earlier in 2010 to protect churches from "excessive" and "unconstitutional" government intrusion.
Some of the objectives of the Church Project is to alert and educate pastors and ministry leaders nationwide about the forces working to limit religious freedom in America; to equip the leaders with the legal information, resources, and support to defend their freedom; and to help ensure churches can remain free to govern themselves.
In 1954, Congress passed a tax code amendment by then Sen.-Lyndon Johnson that prohibits any speech about a political candidate.
But Stanley said, the "IRS rules don't trump the Constitution, and the First Amendment certainly trumps the Johnson Amendment."
"No tax exemption can ever be contingent upon someone giving up a constitutional right," he said. "We will continue to monitor this situation and take appropriate steps to defend the church (Liberty Baptist Tabernacle), if necessary."
The third annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday, part of the Pulpit Initiative, will take place on Sept. 26. On Pulpit Freedom Sunday, participating pastors preach biblically-based sermons at their churches about the positions of electoral candidates and current government officials.