LA MESA, Calif. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has sent out 60,000 letters to clergy warning the spiritual leaders not to intervene in partisan campaigns.
“People don’t join churches because they want to be told how to vote,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Our letter reminds religious leaders about what the law requires, why it makes sense and how it could affect them.”
The letter comes as evangelical leaders across the country are gearing up get-out-the-vote initiatives and just weeks before national Pulpit Freedom Sunday in which more than 1,200 churches are expected to challenge Internal Revenue Service regulations that prohibit pastors from endorsing candidates during worship services.
The Oct. 7 Pulpit Freedom event is asking pastors to directly challenge the IRS guidelines during their Sunday services and then sending the sermon tapes to the federal agency. Many evangelical pastors believe the guidelines are unconstitutional and are hoping to bring a lawsuit if the IRS seeks action against a pastor or church. The 2,200 lawyers affiliated with Alliance Defending Freedom, the event sponsor, have pledged to provide pro bono representation to any pastor or church that finds its tax-exempt status in jeopardy for defying the regulations.
The event has drawn the attention of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who highlighted it in mid-September during his Fox News show. Featured on the show was Jim Garlow, pastor of Skyline Church in La Mesa, CA., who is also involved with the coalition backing Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
“While the Democrats are trying to figure whether or not they want God in their platform, the IRS is trying to control what some pastors can say about the political issues that matter most to their congregations,” Huckabee said while introducing the segment.
“It’s a pretty bold thing to say on Oct. 7 a bunch of pastors, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands across the country are going to stand in their pulpits and essentially say the IRS cannot tell us what we can or cannot say.”
Garlow, a student of American and church history, explained that the IRS regulations, enacted by Congress through the 1954 Johnson Amendment, violate the intentions of the founding fathers who placed a premium on religious freedoms. Then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson pushed for the regulations after several business owners used their non-profit status to campaign against the representative.
“The result of it was that they began to put a muzzle on churches,” Garlow told Huckabee. “We lost 166 years of freedom in the pulpit.”
Pulpit Freedom Sunday, now in its fifth year, began with 33 pastors. Last year, 539 pastors participated in the pulpit protest.
“This year we will have a 1,000 or 2,000 pastors on the same day intentionally, will exercise their biblical authority and constitutional rights and record their sermons and mail them to the IRS,” Garlow said to a round of applause from Huckabee’s studio audience.
The pastor stressed that no church has ever lost its tax exemption status for endorsing from the pulpit, which is why the religious leaders are pushing forward with its advocacy of no government intrusion upon churches.
“The law hangs over us like a Damocles sword, in essence chilling pastors, muzzling them, intimidating pastors,” Garlow told Huckabee. “The result is, often times, pastors that try to be biblical, speak out on issues that are biblical, tearing up a baby in the womb, for example, or the practice of homosexuality or the definition of marriage. People say ‘Oh, you are too political, you are too political.’ No, we are simply being biblical, but people don’t recognize biblical sermons anymore. That’s the challenge. That’s why pastors are rising up and reclaiming that which is biblical as biblical, and being bold in the pulpit.”
But Lynn, the advocate for separation of church and state, disagreed.
“Most clergy of all faiths know it’s inappropriate to use their pulpits to stump for political candidates,” he said in a statement announcing the clergy letters. “But there are very vocal misguided religious and political forces that constantly prod religious leaders to violate federal tax law. We urge clergy to just say no.”
Huckabee reminded his viewers, however, that the founding fathers were clear of their intention to protect religious freedom.
“The simple reality that we all need to remember is that the very first line in the Bill of Rights is that Congress shall make no law,” the cable talk show host said. “Then it goes on to describe what Congress can’t do. It never says what churches can’t do. It never says what citizens can’t do. It never says what pastors can’t do. It says what Congress cannot do, but they seem to be doing it anyway.”
Despite the increased participation in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, the majority of pastors still believe they should not endorse candidates from the pulpit.
A new survey, released Oct. 1, found that nearly 90 percent of pastors believe they should not endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit.
The survey by LifeWay Research, reviewed 1,000 Protestant pastors and found that only 10 percent believe pastors should endorse candidates from the pulpit. Eighty-seven percent believe (71 percent strongly and 16 percent somewhat) pastors should not endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit. Three percent of pastors are not sure.
"Previous research has shown that pastors believe the government has no place in determining what is and is not said from their pulpits regarding candidates," Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research, said. "Yet most pastors don't believe endorsement of candidates should be made from the pulpit."