This Sunday, more than 400 pastors will be using their pulpits to preach politics and challenge the Internal Revenue Service's regulations that restrict religious leaders from endorsing candidates and discussing policies with their congregations.
Oct. 2 is Pulpit Freedom Sunday, and this year Alliance Defense Fund and its supporters have quadrupled its participation from last year. Last year, 100 pastors committed to the event, but this year, registration lists are exploding, with 475 pastors who will participate in the event.
ADF created Pulpit Freedom Day project through its Pulpit Initiative to protect the church's religious freedom, said ADF senior legal counsel Erik Stanley, the event's spokesperson. Stanley told The Christian Post that ADF has purposely kept the event small for the past three years to gauge the IRS' reaction.
On Pulpit Freedom Day, registered pastors are encouraged to videotape themselves speaking to their congregations about the Scripture, politics and political candidates, and mail those videos to the IRS. ADF then stands ready to evaluate IRS complaints and legally represent those churches or ministries whose 501(c)(3) nontaxable status has been threatened in court.
"Our goal has always been ... to have the Johnson amendment declared unconstitutional," Stanley said.
Since the project began in 2008 with 33 pastors, no churches have been investigated or had their tax-exempt status revoked due to their participation, Stanley said.
For some, talking about political issues in church may seem like nothing new. But according to IRS guidelines, it could cause a church or Bible ministry to lose its nontaxable status.
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The IRS' Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations states, "Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violates the [section 501(c)(3)] prohibition of political campaign activity" and could result in the revocation of the church's or organization's tax-exempt status.
The guidelines are taken from the 1954 tax amendment passed by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson to restrict churches and religious organizations from becoming politically involved.
While no participants of the project actually lost their tax-exempt status, several churches have been subject to a possible investigation after preaching the biblical view of government policies and politicians in their churches.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed an IRS complaint against Warroad Community Church in 2008 after Minnesota pastor Gus Booth taught his congregation what the Scripture says about abortion and same-sex marriage and compared those teachings to candidates' positions.
In 2009, a California-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group filed an IRS complaint against the Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine, after it announced it would gather signatures for a voter referendum on the state's same-sex marriage law.
Stanley said U.S. pastors are becoming more and more aware of the Johnson amendment and are anxious to defend their rights to free speech and religious freedom.
"Pastors want to be involved in protecting their right to speak freely from the pulpit," he said.
A 2011 survey conducted by Lifeway Research shows most pastors are concerned with free speech in the pulpit.
Lifeway interviewed 1,000 pastors and found 86 percent of pastors disagreed with the statement "The government should regulate sermons by revoking a church's tax exemption if its pastor approves of or criticizes candidates based on the church's moral beliefs or theology."
"We believe the IRS regulation is a dumb one; it ought to be done away with," said Richard Land, pastor and president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "It violates the First Amendment."
Pastors should have the freedom to preach on the issues and where the Bible stands on the issues, he said.
But Land, who is also executive editor for The Christian Post, said he does not believe that pastors should endorse politicians from the pulpit.
"We (Southern Baptists) don't believe that pastors and churches should be endorsing candidates," he said. "We believe that candidates should be endorsing them and their values and beliefs.”
According to a 2010 Lifeway survey, 84 percent of pastors also disagreed with the statement, "I believe pastors should endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit."
Land told CP that he does not endorse Pulpit Freedom Sunday for the same reason.
Stanley said ADF does not wish to answer the question of whether a pastor should or should not endorse political candidates from the pulpit. He stressed, however, that the initiative "was intended to answer the question of who should make that decision for churches.”
The pastors registered to participate in the 2011 Pulpit Freedom Sunday include ministers from 46 states and Puerto Rico.
Stanley said ADF plans to continue promoting and growing Pulpit Freedom Sunday every year until either the IRS or Congress responds.