PHOENIX, Ariz. Six churches from across the country are the subject of a complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service charging they broke federal law by endorsing candidates from the pulpit.
The complaints were filed Sept. 29, one day after 31 churches challenged the law as part of Pastor Freedom Sunday, an initiative sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund.
"ADF has been hearing mounting frustration on the part of pastors because they don't know where the line is on what they can and cannot say from the pulpit," said Erik Stanley, ADF's senior legal counsel.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State called the project a "gambit."
"The Religious Right desperately wants to mold fundamentalist congregations into a partisan juggernaut that controls all elections and ultimately the government itself," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said in a news release. "That's a frightening prospect in a pluralistic nation that safeguards freedom of conscience for persons of all faiths and none."
At the center of the issue is what as known as the Johnson Amendment, named after then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson. The senator, facing re-election criticism from leaders of several nonprofit groups, successfully pushed for a new regulation that threatens the revocation of tax-exempt status for nonprofits that endorse candidates. Outside of that specific restriction, churches are allowed to discuss issues, endorse propositions and open their pulpits to candidates as long as the same opportunity is extended to everyone in the race.
"We're kind of in a waiting period right now to see what the IRS does," he said, adding that such IRS reviews generally take two to three months. "The IRS was very aware of it (the initiative) in advance.
"We want them to restore a pastor's right to free speech from the pulpit without fear of government censorship."
Even before Pulpit Sunday, as it was also called, leaders of progressive churches were calling for an investigation into ADF, saying the organization's own tax-exempt status should be revoked for encouraging churches to break the law.
"The role of the church … and of its religious leaders is to stand apart from government, to prophetically speak truth to power, and to encourage a national dialogue that transcends the divisiveness of electoral politics and preserves for every citizen our 'first liberty,'" the Rev. Eric Williams, pastor of North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio, told The Washington Post.
Williams led a counter movement that drew at least 50 pastors who preached against using the pulpit for politics.
Stanley, however, countered that argument saying their objection is not to politicking from the pulpit, but conservative politicking from the pulpit. In addition, he said, the IRS has been selective in its enforcement of the IRS regulations.
"They seem to be picking and choosing whom they are going after," he said. "We have documents and evidence of a kind of double standard."
He went on to chide Lynn's Americans United, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union as using the law to try to "intimidate churches into silence."
"They are using the IRS as an advocacy tool to push their own version of the law, and something needs to be done to bring clarity to the issue," the attorney said.
The danger, he said, is giving bureaucrats subjective powers without a system of checks and balances.
"The real problem is the IRS has reserved for itself a tremendous amount of discretion and power of who they go after," Stanley said. "They wield a tremendous amount of power.
"There needs to be a healthy separation, and they need to stay out of the pulpits altogether."
Pastor not a part of Pulpit Sunday targeted
Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, was among those cited in the complaint filed by Americans United, even though Drake was not officially registered with ADF's Pulpit Sunday. Stanley said even though Drake was not part of the official initiative, ADF is still willing to represent the Orange County pastor.
The only other California pastor participating in Pulpit Sunday was Jack Hibbs, pastor of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, Chino, Calif. Hibbs has been active in the Proposition 8 drive and has hosted several pastors' meetings on the topic. His sermon and church were not included in the formal complaint to the IRS.
The issue is not so much who a pastor should or should not endorse or oppose," Stanley said. "The issue is who gets to regulate that for the church, and it should not be the government. The debate belongs within the churches themselves."
Pastors who signed up to be a part of 'Pastor Freedom Sunday'
Sam Greene, Gateway Baptist Church, Fulltondale AL
Bishop Robert Smith, Word of Outreach Christian Center, Little Rock AR
David Prather, Central Christian Church, Lancaster CA
Clifton Samson, First Baptist Church of Yorba Linda, Yorba Linda CA
Jack Hibbs, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, Chino Hills CA
Jody Hice, Bethlehem First Baptist Church, Bethlehem GA
Scott Craig, Kumulani Chapel, Lahaina HI
Ronald Johnson, Living Stones Fellowship Church, Crown Point IN
Phil Ellsworth, Grace Christian Fellowship Church, Shawnee KS
Mike Holloway, Cook Baptist Church, Ruston LA
George Marin, Grace Christian Church, Albert Lea MN
Gus Booth, Warroad Community Church, Warroad MN
Walter & Jonathon Leake, Praise Assembly Worship Center, New Bern NC
Bob Beal, Ark Church of God, Manchester NH
Robert Hall, Calvary Chapel Rio Ranch, Rio Rancho NM
Curtis Parker, First Baptist Church of Avoca, Avoca NY
Paul Blair, Fairview Baptist Church, Edmond OK
Dan Fisher, Trinity Baptist Church, Yukon OK
Jack Nester, Fellowhship of Believers, Salina OK
Michael McDowell, First Baptist Church of Fossil, Fossil OR
Francis Pultro, Calvary Chapel Kings Highway, Philadelphia PA
Mark Canipe, Heights Baptist Church, Beech Island SC
Mike Gonzalez, Columbia World Outreach Church, Columbia SC
Richard Bacon, Faith Presbyterian Church, Rowlett TX
Stephen Broden, Fair Park Bible Fellowship, Dallas TX
Andy Cherry, Chinese Baptist Church, Houston TX
Dave Roberts, Grace Bible Church, Georgetown TX
Shanon Nelms, Arena of Life Church, San Angelo TX
David Whitington, Christ Our King Church, Southlake TX
Kenneth Card, Anchor Baptist Church, Mechanicsville VA
David Stapp, First Baptist Church, Deer Park WA
Luke Emrich, New Life Church West, Bend WI
Don Brockus, Cody Assembly of God, Cody WY