The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has settled with the non-profit Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) and agreed to begin investigating churches that have endorsed specific candidates for political office. However, the investigations are pending on a Court decision.
The groups are in the middle of a joint motion to dismiss a 2012 lawsuit FFRF brought before a Wisconsin court claiming that the tax agency failed to pursue any investigations of religious organizations — specifically churches — that participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” The annual event is sponsored by the law firm Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and began in 2008. It’s aim is to encourage pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit. This defies a 60-year-old rule of the IRS in which non-profits are prohibited to openly endorse or oppose a candidate for government office. Any organization risks its tax-exempt status if it does. Since the event first began 1,600 church have participated.
Pulpit Freedom Sunday
33 pastors participated in 2008
1,621 participated in 2012. The amendment to the tax code, often called the Johnson Amendment, was adapted in 1954 and was seen as a way for Johnson to give himself an edge in his reelection campaign when he was a senator. The Washington Times reported last year that for the first “178 years of American independence, rabbis, priests and preachers could stand in their pulpits and say anything they liked about candidates, just like other Americans whose First Amendment rights remained intact.” Religious groups are petitioning the government to remove the amendment and Pulpit Freedom Sunday is part of that protest.
In a statement by FFRF they said, “Pulpit Freedom Sunday, in fact, has become an annual occasion for churches to violate the law with impunity. The IRS, meanwhile, admittedly was not enforcing the restrictions against churches.”
Only 10% of pastors support endorsing a candidate over the pulpit. In 2009, FFRF sued the IRS for not enforcing their regulations and the agency agreed to appoint someone to oversee religious organizations. However, they failed to do so, which prompted another lawsuit and the agreement to settle. The settlement “is a victory, and we’re pleased with this development in which the IRS has proved to our satisfaction that it now has in place a protocol to enforce its own anti-electioneering provisions,” said FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor in the statement.
The IRS has not yet released the language of the settlement and the ADF wants them to detail how they intend to enforce the Johnson Amendment.
Currently, all investigations on part of the IRS on churches and other non-profits are on hold. Christianity Today points out that “until a moratorium related to the agency’s controversial scrutiny of tea party organizations is lifted after a congressional investigation closes” the IRS will be unable to probe into the actions of churches. But the ADF, “stands ready to defend a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit” should the IRS return to enforcing the Johnson Amendment.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day remains politically neutral when it comes to endorsing specific candidates and most state/national issues.