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Feds mum on pastors' speech code challenge

Bob Unruh - WND

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'Whether IRS responds, doesn't, or waits, we're not going away'

Hundreds of Christian pastors across the United States have knowingly spoken out from their pulpits about political candidates and have gotten virtually no response from the Internal Revenue Service, whose job it is to enforce the 1954 Johnson Amendment banning such speech from pulpits.

Have they intimidated the IRS? Or is there just a delay between the comments and the response?

Doesn't matter, according to officials with the Alliance Defense Fund, which is running the Pulpit Project to restore the Constitution's speech rights to pastors.

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"Whether the IRS responds, doesn't respond, or chooses to wait to respond, we're not going away. Protecting the freedom of the pulpit is too important to stop this effort after a few short years," wrote Erik Stanley, a senior counsel with the ADF, in a blog report on the campaign.

"The Johnson Amendment has been around for 56 years now. It may take a few more years to see it rescinded, but we're committed to staying the course until we do," he wrote.

WND reported last fall when at least 100, and perhaps as many as several hundred, Christian pastors preached about biblical issues and the political candidates. They then packaged up their sermons and sent them to the IRS.

The campaign also took place in 2008 and 2009, although with fewer participants.

The program challenges IRS rules adopted in 1954 at the behest of then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, that prohibit any speech from a church pulpit favoring or opposing a political candidate.

The rules were adopted after Johnson found himself bearing the brunt of critical comments from Christian pastors concerned about his behavior in Washington. Before then, according to the ADF, pastors spoke freely from their pulpits even about specific candidates, issues and elections.

According to Stanley's report, the goal isn't complicated.

"Pastors have the right to proclaim biblical truth from their pulpits without having to worry about the government looking over their shoulder and threatening their churches with revocation of tax exempt status if they say something the IRS doesn't like," his report said.

Officials with the IRS chose not to respond to WND's request for comment on the campaign.

But the ADF effort points out that before the amendment in 1954, "there were no restrictions on what churches could or couldn't do with regard to speech about government and voting, excepting only a 1934 law preventing nonprofits from using a substantial part of their resources to lobby for legislation."

Since Johnson's amendment, "The IRS has steadfastly maintained that any speech by churches about candidates for government office, including sermons from the pulpit, can result in loss of tax exemption."

Consequently, the amendment has intimidated churches into effectively silencing their speech.

"ADF believes that the Johnson amendment is unconstitutional in restricting the expression of sermons delivered from the pulpits of churches. This initiative is designed to return freedom to the pulpit by allowing pastors to speak out on the profound and important issues of the day," the campaign explains.

Stanley noted the three years of participation by pastors in the campaign.

"How has the IRS responded to the efforts of these pastors to restore their right to speak freely from their pulpits without IRS oversight? … Mostly, the IRS has remained silent. In 2008, one pastor was audited by the IRS but the IRS dropped that audit soon after it began. No other church has been audited by the IRS as a result of the church's participation in Pulpit Freedom Sunday," he wrote.

The ADF said several letters were dispatched by the IRS in response to the 2010 work, including one that several pastors received. It said:

We maintain an ongoing examination program to ensure that tax exempt organizations continue to meet the requirements for tax-exempt status. Whenever we receive information about an organization that raises questions about its continued exempt status or compliance with the tax laws, we forward the information to our EO Examinations office in Dallas to determine if it warrants an examination or other action.

The law, however, prohibits us from disclosing the existence of an examination, the results of any examination, or any conclusions from a completed examination (sec. 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code). Therefore, I cannot comment what action, if any, we may take regarding the information you provided.

The letter was signed David Fish, Manager, Exempt Organization Guidance, the ADF said.

"This is basically a 'brush-off' letter saying that the IRS is sending the pastor's sermon to its Dallas office where they may or may not decide to take any action regarding the sermon," Stanley's report said.

Also, one pastor received a letter basically restating the law.

Stanley suggested the IRS, like other large federal bureaucracies, may be disorganized.

Or it may be ignoring the pastors.

"First, the IRS may not be sure how to handle these pastors," Stanley's report said. Or, "maybe the IRS is still waiting for an opportune moment to respond to Pulpit Freedom Sunday. As attorneys who practice in the field of federal tax exemption know, the IRS has not been auditing any churches for any reason for the last year or so since their regulations regarding the procedure they use to audit churches were found to violate the law. The IRS has proposed new procedures to fix this problem. … But the regulations have never been finalized and, because of that, the IRS has not been auditing any churches."

Or, it could be that "the IRS knows it cannot win this fight and so prefers not to fight at all. There does seem to be a reluctance on the part of the IRS to allow a court challenge to the Johnson Amendment. Some have privately suggested that the IRS knows it cannot win and so wants to avoid the fight altogether," Stanley reported.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday will take place again this year Oct. 2.

Stanley said any pastor interested in participating can find more information on the Pulpit Initiative website.

May 28, 2011