At least 100 pastors nationwide will challenge a 56-year-old tax code law by talking politics in their sermons Sunday.
Participants of the third annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday, organized by the Christian legal group Alliance Defense Fund, will use the Bible's teachings to preach on the positions of electoral candidates or current government officials in defiance of an IRS rule proposed by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson and passed by Congress in 1954.
The rule states that a non-profit organization with tax exemption cannot "participate in, or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office." The penalty for violating the rule is the loss of tax-exempt status.
"Pastors and churches shouldn't live in fear of being punished or penalized by the government – in this case, the IRS," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. "ADF is not trying to get politics into the pulpit; we want to get government out of the pulpit."
"Churches should be allowed to decide for themselves what they want to talk about," he said. "The IRS should not be the one making the decision by threatening to revoke a church's tax-exempt status."
ADF noted that pastors spoke about politics, including specific candidates and elections, from the pulpit without worrying about their churches' tax exemption status being revoked until 1954. Since the Johnson Amendment to the Federal Tax Code, many pastors have ceased to talk about politicians' stances on social issues from a biblical perspective.
The IRS rule, ADF contends, has in effect "muzzled" pastors from speaking freely in the pulpit. It has also given groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State a "political tool" to advance its agenda to silence the Church in the public square.
"Rather than risk confrontation, many pastors have self-censored their speech, afraid to apply the teachings of Scripture to specific candidates or elections," remarked Stanley. "As in years past, the participants in Pulpit Freedom Sunday 2010 are taking a stand against being intimidated into sacrificing their First Amendment rights."
This year, there are more pastors participating in Pulpit Freedom Sunday than in 2009, when at least 80 pastors dared to defy the IRS rule. In 2008, the first year of the movement, only 33 pastors participated.
"Decisions about what is preached from the pulpit of a church should not belong to the government but to the individual pastor and church itself," wrote Chuck Colson, founder of the prison ministry Prison Fellowship and a former aide to President Richard Nixon, in a column this week.
"That is why I support Pulpit Freedom Sunday," he said, "in which pastors across America will take a courageous stand and boldly challenge the IRS's restrictions on their freedom of speech when it comes to political candidates and issues."
ADF attorneys have vowed to legally defend participating pastors if the IRS tries to revoke their church's tax exempt status.
The mission of the Ariz.-based legal alliance is to defend the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and direct litigation.