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Many of you are aware that in 2008, ADF launched Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  This initiative is intended to restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit without fearing any government censorship or control.  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.

On September 28, 2008, Alliance Defending Freedom conducted the first Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Starting with 33 pastors from 22 states in 2008, Pulpit Freedom Sunday participation has grown steadily to a high of 1621 participants in 2012.  Pastors who have participated have openly preached sermons that make specific recommendations about the candidates for public office and, in many cases, these pastors send their sermons directly to the IRS.

So we are six years into the Pulpit Initiative.  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.

The IRS seems to have simply ignored Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  So what is going through the IRS’ collective mind on this issue?  Well, answering that question requires a level of prognostication and insight reserved for the Divine. But I think we can take some educated guesses as to what is going on.

First, the IRS may not be sure how to handle these pastors.  There are a couple of pieces of evidence that may suggest that the IRS is simply unorganized in its efforts to respond to Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  First, several pastors who participated in 2010 who sent their sermons to the IRS received basic form letters thanking them for their “referral” to the IRS of their situation.  The letters are normally the kind of letters the IRS sends out to anyone who refers a possible violation of the regulations. Here is what the letter said:

Dear Reverend___:

I am responding to your letter transmitting your sermon of September 26, 2010.

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.

If you have additional information about these exempt organizations that you want to submit for our consideration, you should send it to (IRS address in Dallas given:

I hope this information is helpful.

Sincerely,

David Fish, Manager, Exempt Organization Guidance

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.

Second, one pastor who also participated in 2010 received a letter from the IRS’ manager of “Exempt Organizations Guidance” that basically restated the law.  The letter stated:

I am responding to your letter dated October 6, 2010, about political activities.  Under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (the Code) all section 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches and religious organizations, 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.  Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

The political campaign activity prohibition is not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of churches or religious organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals.  Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy.  However for their organizations to remain tax exempt under section 501(c)(3), religious leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official church functions.  To avoid potential attribution of their comments outside of church functions and publications, religious leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to clearly indicate that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization.

I have enclosed a copy of our Publication, tax guide for Churches and Religious Organizations.

I hope this information is helpful.  If you have any questions, please call….

This letter raises a number of interesting points, but overall I think it may demonstrate a disorganized IRS response to Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  Why did only one pastor get this letter out of the almost 100 who participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2010?  Why did the letter just restate the IRS regulations on political intervention of churches?  The pastor had sent the IRS a sermon that specifically addressed candidates for office in a Sunday sermon where the pastor was speaking, not in his individual capacity, but as the pastor of the church.  The letter this pastor received doesn’t seem to address the situation, and is just a basic informational letter.

Pastors who participated in 2011, 2012, and 2013 have received no communications from the IRS.

So maybe the IRS’ response is just disorganized.  I’m sure that the IRS is not unique among large federal bureaucracies.

Still, 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 several years 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.  I testified before the IRS in January, 2010, concerning those procedures and how they should be structured to protect the rights of pastors and churches.  But the regulations have never been finalized and, because of that, the IRS has not been auditing any churches.  The IRS has said publicly that it intended to finalize the church audit procedures in 2011, but no action has been taken on that front as of today.

Finally, maybe the IRS knows it cannot win this fight and so prefers not to fight at all.  There does seem to be 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.

All in all, it is difficult to understand the IRS’ lack of response to Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  So where does that leave Pulpit Freedom Sunday?  Well, one thing is certain.  When Alliance Defending Freedom started the Pulpit Initiative, we committed to remain in it for the long haul and to continue Pulpit Freedom Sunday until it became clear, one way or another, that the IRS was not going to censor anything a pastor says from the pulpit.  If the IRS continues its lack of response, we will just continue to grow Pulpit Freedom Sunday year after year.  If the IRS finally decides to respond, then we will litigate to protect the rights of pastors to speak uncensored and free.

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.  The Johnson Amendment has been around for 60 years now.  It may take a few more years to see it rescinded, but we’re committed to staying the course until we do.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday will happen again this year on October 5, 2014.  If you know of a pastor interested in participating, they can find more information about the Pulpit Initiative on our website.  And stay tuned for information on how to join with Alliance Defending Freedom and the courageous pastors who have participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday in the past.

Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts or follow us on Facebook to join the conversation. http://www.facebook.com/SpeakUpChurch

Author

ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

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Pulpit Freedom Sunday is coming closer.  On October 5, 2014, hundreds of pastors will stand united in their pulpits and preach an election sermon.  Most pastors have not been preaching sermons like this since the Johnson Amendment was added to the tax code in 1954, effectively silencing the speech of pastors through intimidation and fear.  Yet a growing nationwide movement of pastors are refusing to be intimidated.  They are willing to stand up and exercise their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and free exercise of religion by boldly preaching on Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  These pastors are courageously regaining the freedom of the pulpit.

Many years ago, James Garfield said:

Now more than ever the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless, and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness, and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave, and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature. . . . [I]f the next centennial does not find us a great nation . . . it will be because those who represent the enterprise, the culture, and the morality of the nation do not aid in controlling the political forces.

The Church has a role to play in upholding morality and exalting righteousness in America.  For the last 60 years, the American pulpit has fallen silent and politics and politicians have received a “free pass” from the biblical watchdogs who have been afraid to raise their voice against rampant evil and unrighteousness.

But that is all about to change.  Watch on Sunday, October 5, as hundreds of pastors exercise their prophetic role in this country.  As my good friend Pastor Jim Garlow says, this could be the final ingredient we need for the next Great Awakening in America.  Let’s pray together to that end.

If you want to find out more about Pulpit Freedom Sunday, visit our website.  We encourage every pastor in America to join us in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

Please share your comments below and to join the conversation join our Facebook page at Facebook.com/SpeakUpChurch

Author

ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

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Pulpit Freedom Sunday is October 5, 2014.  In case you or others you may know are undecided about participating, let me give you five very good reasons why your participation is so important.  After considering these reasons, the next step is to go to www.pulpitfreedom.org and sign up. You may even decide to send this information to five or ten of your pastor friends and urge them to sign up, as well. It’s time this movement of bold pastors sweeps the nation.

1.  The issues the country is facing are biblical issues. Pastors, more than many others, are uniquely suited to speak to the issues confronting the country in this election season.  Issues such as life, marriage, the family, the economy, the poor, and many others are addressed specifically in scripture.  The effect of the Johnson Amendment has been to make these biblical issues “political,” as if slapping a “political” label on an issue somehow removes it from the purview of scripture.  For example, a pastor preaching a sermon thirty years ago that abortion is wrong was just being biblical. But that same sermon today is labeled as political and, as a result, the pastor is sidelined into silence.  It’s not that the church is somehow becoming “political.”  It’s that politics is invading the realm of the church.

2.  The free exercise of religion requires a free pulpit.  The First Amendment prohibits the government from enacting laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion.  A pastor preaching a sermon from the pulpit is one of the core activities of the free exercise of religion.  A law, like the Johnson Amendment, that prohibits pastors from speaking freely from the pulpit violates the free exercise of religion.  How can the exercise of religion be free if your church is subject to fines and penalties for something you as a pastor say from the pulpit?

3.  Every church and pastor has the right to decide what is preached from their pulpit.  Pastors and churches should decide for themselves what is preached from the pulpit.  The IRS should have no power to insert itself into that decision-making process.  But since the adoption of the Johnson Amendment in 1954, the IRS has done just that. Pulpit Freedom Sunday removes the government from the pulpits and churches of America.

4.  The Johnson Amendment is blatantly unconstitutional.  Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a head-on constitutional challenge to the Johnson Amendment, which is blatantly unconstitutional.  This unjust law, which never should have been applied to churches and pastors, has had a devastating effect on their constitutionally protected rights. Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a strategic initiative to remove this unjust law and restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit.

5.  America needs to hear from pastors.  Pastors in America have a rich tradition of speaking prophetically and boldly from their pulpits on the great issues of the day.  The voice of America’s pastors led the way through independence, slavery, civil rights, and have even influenced which men and women we put into public office.  But because of the Johnson Amendment, the voice of pastors is unjustly silenced every election cycle.  It’s time for America’s pastors to become part of the process again and to stop being sidelined by an unconstitutional law.

As pastors, you have a decision to make – do you want to have the ability to speak freely on all issues the Bible addresses, or do you want to let the IRS and culture define for you what is permissible for you to address?  Pulpit Freedom Sunday frees pastors to make that decision for themselves.

These are just five good reasons why you should take a moment and go to www.pulpitfreedom.org to sign up to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday on October 5, 2014.  It’s time to stand… time to stand together with hundreds of other pastors from across the country who agree that pastors, and not the government, should decide what is said from the pulpit.

Author

ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

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By Erik Stanley

Two cases in Hawaii and New York City threaten the long tradition of churches using public school facilities. From the very beginning of the United States, churches have used government facilities for worship services. In 1795, a church used the United States Capitol building just two years after the cornerstone was laid and before Congress officially began meeting in the building. In fact, worship services were held in the Capitol building until around the time of the Civil War.

In the pioneer era, it was commonplace for church worship services to be held in public school buildings and for public schools to be held in church buildings. Indeed, it makes a great deal of sense for churches and schools to occupy the same physical space given that churches generally operate at times when schools are not in session and vice versa.

Despite this long history and the fact that church use of governmental buildings has not led our country any closer to establishing a national religion, there are forces that do not want churches to use school buildings for religious worship.

In one case, Alliance Defending Freedom has been representing the Bronx Household of Faith in New York City for close to 20 years. The New York City public schools established a policy that allows community groups to use school facilities but prohibits using them for religious worship. The case has bounced back and forth between the trial court and the appeals court in New York several times. In the most recent ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the school’s policy excluding religious worship was constitutional. Alliance Defending Freedom appealed that ruling to the full Court of Appeals and will continue to fight for the ability of churches to use school facilities equally. Churches should not be discriminated against simply because they are religious.

In another case, Alliance Defending Freedom represents two Hawaii churches who were sued by atheists, claiming that the churches knowingly underpaid rental fees to the schools they were using. The lawsuit filed was brought under the state’s False Claims Act, which allows insiders who possess confidential information of fraud to file a whistleblower lawsuit to recover the money on behalf of the state and to assess triple damages. If successful, the atheists get to keep a portion of the money they recovered, and they are asking for an award of several million dollars. But the churches paid all the rent they were charged, and the Department of Education knew about the charges and payments by the churches. Alliance Defending Freedom asked the trial court to dismiss this lawsuit. Churches should not be bullied into giving up their right to equal use of government buildings.

These lawsuits are just a few of the attacks against churches using school facilities. So how should a church respond? Should they abandon any attempts to use school facilities for worship services?

No. This approach disregards the many startup churches who can only afford to rent government school facilities. It also ignores that in places like Hawaii and New York City, property is at a premium with frequently nowhere for churches to meet other than public buildings. And it overlooks the rich history of complementary use of government buildings by churches since the very beginning of this country.

Churches should not be pushed out of public spaces simply because some find the message of the Gospel “offensive.” Nor should churches themselves voluntarily abandon the public square where the proclamation of the Gospel message is sorely needed.

Alliance Defending Freedom has attorneys willing to defend a church’s right to have equal access to government facilities and not be subject to intimidation tactics seeking to forcibly remove churches. If you or your church are facing threats or encountering problems regarding use of governmental facilities, please contact us so an attorney can review your situation.

 

 

Author

ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

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Why is your church tax exempt?  Why should it continue to be tax exempt? If I were to sit down and ask you these questions, would you have a clear and coherent answer? I suspect this is something we seldom think about. After all, tax exemption for churches has always been given and we assume, because of its historical longevity, it always will be given.

The fact that most Americans cannot explain why their church is tax exempt indicates a forgotten history and is emblematic of a society that has systematically devalued the church as a beneficial societal institution.

Whenever I litigate a case about church tax exemption or Pulpit Freedom Sunday, the inevitable media comments go something like this: “Churches should pay taxes just like everyone else! They have tons of money, so why can’t they pay their fair share? Why should churches get a free ride? Make them pay!” Comments like these are more prevalent today than any other time I can remember.

Cases involving local governments attempting to tax churches are also becoming more prevalent. For example, Alliance Defending Freedom litigated and won a case against the City of Mission, Kansas, for attempting to impose a “driveway tax” on churches. Or consider the case of Liberty Assembly of God in New Hampshire which was slapped with a property tax bill simply because the local taxing authorities rifled through the church buildings and concluded that because some rooms were “untidy,” the church was not using them for a religious purpose.

So why should churches be tax exempt? There are very sound and valid reasons for church tax exemption. First, there is the “social benefit” theory of tax exemption. This recognizes the fact that churches provide great benefits to society by their good works. Churches minister to the poor and needy in the community, provide numerous social services for the downtrodden among us, and reach out to the “least of these” in thousands of different ways. The social benefit theory justifies tax exemption for churches as a kind of bargain – churches provide needed services, so they are entitled to tax exemption.

One corollary of the “social benefit” theory that is often overlooked is what I have termed the “intangible benefit” theory of tax exemption. This highlights the intangible and often unseen benefits provided by churches to the community. Things like reduced crime rates resulting from transformed lives, suicides prevented when people surrender to Christ, and people with destructive behavioral patterns that harm the community changing into hard-working and virtuous citizens who contribute to the well-being of the community. It is difficult to put a price tag on these types of intangible benefits provided by churches, but there is no question that they exist.

An interesting study conducted a few years ago attempted to put a value on the economic worth of one church. The study estimated that the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia provided over six million dollars of economic value to the community, a figure that is nearly ten times the church’s annual budget.

It is easy to see the benefits provided by churches. In fact, churches provide more social services and intangible benefits to the community than they would ever pay in taxes. It makes no sense to tax churches because the tax dollars taken from the church reduce the amount of benefits it can provide to the community. In a very real sense, taxing churches harms society.

But there is also a constitutional reason why churches are tax exempt. Our history is one of an unbroken practice of exempting churches from taxation. Churches were exempt from the very first time the tax code was passed at the federal level, and have remained exempt in every iteration of the tax code ever since. Every state in America also exempts churches from property taxes. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case regarding the property tax exemption of churches, called Walz v. Tax Commission, it stated that providing a tax exemption for churches was a less intrusive option under the Constitution than requiring churches to pay taxes.

That makes sense when you stop and think about it. As the Supreme Court said in a very early case, “The power to tax involves the power to control.”  Taxation is, in essence, a very strong assertion of control by a sovereign over its subjects. Exempting churches is a way to ensure that the state cannot control churches.

Overall, there are very good reasons why churches are tax exempt. We need to remember these reasons and proclaim them to others in a society who reflexively shouts that the Church should pay its fair share. We should take up the cause of passionate defenders of church tax exemption like Kentucky State Representative Whittaker. During the debates on the Kentucky Constitution in 1890, he loudly proclaimed, “Let an untaxed Gospel be preached, in an untaxed church-house, from an untaxed pulpit; let the emblem of a crucified, but risen Christ be administered from an untaxed altar, and, as the spire points heavenward, . . . let it stand forever untaxed.” Amen.

Author

ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

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