(CNSNews.com) - So far this year, more than 1,800 pastors across the United States have participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an annual event hosted by Alliance Defending Freedom that advocates for pastors’ right to speak on politics from the pulpit without fear of losing their churches’ tax exempt status.
Pulpit Freedom Sunday, which started Oct. 5 and runs through Election Day on Nov. 4, first began in 2008 with only 33 participating pastors.
So far this year, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Arizona-based Christian activist group that started the event, reported pastors in more than 1,500 churches in all 50 states and Puerto Rico have preached sermons “representing biblical perspectives on the positions of electoral candidates” since the event began nearly two weeks ago.
Another 242 pastors have signed a statement declaring that “the IRS should not control the content of a pastor’s sermon,” the ADF stated.
ADF Legal Communications Director Kerri Kupec explained the event is a nationwide protest of the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the U.S. tax code which states that pastors of churches who fall under the federal government’s 501(c)(3) non-profit tax exemption cannot expressly endorse or oppose political candidates.
Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code states, “Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes” may qualify for tax-exempt status, provided that “no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
The restriction on political endorsements was first proposed by former-President and then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and added to the tax code in 1954.
According the Internal Revenue Service's online explanation of the restrictions for non-profit groups, churches are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
The IRS adds churches are restricted from “voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”
But Kupec maintains that the language in the Johnson Amendment is vague and opens the door for the federal government to monitor and restrict pastors from speaking on biblical issues during sermons under the guise of enforcing restrictions on political speech. These restrictions, she said, ultimately curb a pastor’s First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.
“Pastors do not surrender their First Amendment free speech rights when they take the pulpit,” Kupec explained.
“If you use that language [in the law], it’s whatever that means,” Kupec continued. “And no one knows what that means. There aren’t any guidelines. There aren’t any parameters set out.”
Kupec added the law creates an environment of fear for many pastors who are “afraid to cross some invisible line” when it comes to talking about politically sensitive issues, such as marriage and abortion, which may be linked to a particular candidate’s platform.
“There’s been a history of vague and unequal enforcement throughout the years of this Johnson amendment,” she said. “It’s been used as this tool of intimidation, almost this cloud of bullying. But nobody really knows what that line is, so the knee-jerk reaction is to not say anything, because [pastors] are afraid. And the IRS knows this.”
The ultimate goal of Pulpit Freedom Sunday, which has had more than 3,800 participants since its inception in 2008, is to eventually challenge the Johnson Amendment in court, Kupec said.
“The goal of the event is to get pastors to exercise their constitutional rights, and if the IRS decides that they’ve crossed some line and they decide to pursue some action against them, we’re here to represent those pastors in the court,” she explained. “It’s a way of getting the Johnson Amendment into the court, because it’s an unconstitutional amendment.”
Kupec said ADF has drafted a “legislative fix” for the amendment that clarifies what pastors can and cannot say from the pulpit without risking their church’s tax-exempt status, thus eliminating any gray area currently surrounding the issue. But the end goal, she explained, is to win pastors the same freedom of speech behind the pulpit as they would have anywhere else – including the ability to speak on specific candidates.
“Ultimately, they shouldn’t not be able to speak freely from the pulpit,” Kupec said.
But the event is not without its critics, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist watchdog group that recently filed a lawsuit against the IRS for allegedly not enforcing the current restrictions against political endorsements in churches.
In a news release published on the FFRF’s website, the secular group accused ADF of “inciting illegal acts” and “treating church pastors like pawns” through the Pulpit Freedom Sunday event
"Churches and their pastors are not above the law,” said FFRF co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor in a news release on the group’s website. “Ministers who claim to be moral leaders should realize it's not only illegal for tax-exempt groups to endorse political candidates, it's unethical. It's an abuse of the public trust."
The news release saif FFRF has been “given assurances” that the IRS has “authorized procedures and ‘signature authority’ to resume initiating church tax investigations and examinations.”