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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.


ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project


Every year around this time, questions come up about churches being involved in political elections. Questions like, “Can my church talk about issues that are at stake in the election,” “can my church pass out voter guides,” or “what if a candidate wants to address my congregation?”

Admittedly, it can be confusing for churches and pastors to know what is allowed during an election season.  Much of this confusion stems from the vagueness of the tax code and the accompanying IRS regulations. To help, Alliance Defending Freedom has created many resources for you to utilize this election season.

Guidelines for Churches and Pastors

You’ll find a host of resources on that will clearly spell out what churches and pastors can and cannot do. One popular resource is the Guidelines for “Political Activities” by Churches and Pastors. These guidelines represent the current IRS law regarding what churches and pastors can do during elections. There is a helpful chart included that covers a broad range of topics, such as contributions to candidates and voter education.

Another helpful resource is the Guidelines for Distribution of Voter Guides by Churches. This resource outlines the requirements for distributing voter guides in your church. You will also find a helpful explanation for how to determine what voter guides are appropriate for distribution.


These resources should help you make sense of the law and regulations surrounding elections. However, if you still have questions, please contact us directly. Our goal at Alliance Defending Freedom is to ensure that no church is silent during this election season simply because they don’t fully understand what they can do or are intimidated by misinformation.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday

Pulpit Freedom Sunday is all about ensuring that pastors determine what is said from their pulpits, and not the IRS or groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The goal of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is to have the Johnson Amendment declared unconstitutional.  The Johnson Amendment (the last sentence of section 501(c)(3) of the tax code) has proven to be a weapon of censorship and intimidation of churches during election seasons.  In fact, groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State frequently send letters to pastors trying to intimidate them into silence on the biblical issues surrounding elections. But we believe pastors and church leadership should determine what’s said from the pulpit, not the government or other organizations outside of the church.

On Pulpit Freedom Sunday, October 5, 2014, hundreds of pastors will stand together and preach an election sermon.  The sermon can be as general or as specific as you want it to be.  If you feel led as a pastor to evaluate the candidates in light of Scripture and church teaching, we will defend your constitutional right to do so.  But participation in Pulpit Freedom Sunday does not require supporting or opposing a candidate.  All that is required is a commitment to preach about the election.  Please go to and sign up to join this growing movement of bold pastors. If you are a pastor and you cannot participate on October 5, then pick a Sunday as close to that date as you can, but before the election. You can still sign up to participate and make your voice heard. Pulpit freedom is vital and this project is an important means of ensuring that much of the confusion and intimidation confronting churches during elections is removed.

It is our hope that these resources, and the many others you’ll find on, will help you as a pastor fulfill your biblical calling to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:2). This calling extends even during election cycles, as biblical Truth does not take a holiday during a political campaign. Now, more than ever, the voice of America’s churches must be heard.


ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

As readers of this blog know, ADF has conducted Pulpit Freedom Sunday since 2008.  Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a legal project designed to restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit without fearing government censorship or control.  The government, by applying the Johnson Amendment to churches and pastors, has been mandating that certain content in a pastor’s sermon is off-limits and can result in penalties against the church.  ADF launched Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008 to challenge the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment.  We believe that it is unconstitutional for the government to attempt in any way to censor a pastor’s sermon.

In 2008, Alliance Defending Freedom conducted the first Pulpit Freedom Sunday on September 28. Starting with 33 pastors from 22 states in 2008, Pulpit Freedom Sunday participation has grown steadily to a high of 1621 participants in 2012. These pastors made their sermons public.  They were not preaching secretly or trying to “get away” with something.  Rather, these pastors sincerely want to regain their right to speak freely during their sermons without having to wonder or fear if a government agency is going to punish the church because of something the pastor said from the pulpit.

It has been over six years since Pulpit Freedom Sunday 2008.  Yet the IRS has remained silent.  No pastor has been punished or threatened with punishment by the IRS for participating in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  I’ve speculated before about the reasons why the IRS has remained silent.  But, in reality, the reasons are unimportant.  What is important is that the IRS has said nothing and done nothing in response to Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

We cannot let up and must continue to march forward to regain a pastor’s right to speak without the presence of the government in the pulpit.  Pulpit Freedom Sunday is coming up on October 5, 2014.  Please, if you are a pastor, sign up to participate this year in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  And if you are not a pastor, then send every pastor you know a link to our website at  All the information any pastor needs to become aware of the issues and to sign up to participate is on the website.  We must continue our efforts to get the government out of the pulpits of America.  Will you stand together with us and hundreds of other pastors this October?


ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

PFS_BlogPostIMG3I posted a blog last week that posed the question: Should a pastor preach a sermon where he proclaims the Biblical truth that marriage is between one man and one woman only or should he remain silent because that issue has been deemed political?

It seems to me that today’s pastors have a choice to make?  To preach faithfully the counsel of God’s Word on all issues addressed by Scripture, or to self-censor and remain silent simply because some issues have been deemed “political” and therefore off limits as a sermon topic.  Dr. David Jeremiah put the issue succinctly when he stated, “There are so many issues that are so part of the foundation of Christianity, and not to stand for those things is to be unfaithful.  If we’re only faithful for the things that aren’t being tested, and not faithful for the things that are being tested, then we are not faithful….We can no longer be silent.  If we don’t speak up, nobody is going to speak up.”  Dr. Jeremiah went on to highlight just how deeply theological this issue is when he stated, “Your mandate can never come from the culture.  It must come from the Word of God.”

Or consider how Bishop Harry Jackson put it:

In the next decade or so what America will be for the next hundred years, I believe will be decided. Would you want to be someone who stood by and did nothing and had no voice in changing America for good, that lives through years of regret that you did nothing when you could have spoken out?  Or will you be someone, no matter how small your congregation is or how large your congregation is, who will take up the challenge to follow Christ and endure momentary discomfort with trying to figure out how to articulate the message?  That is a little price to pay for the benefit that we could bring to the entire culture.”

The choice before America’s pastors is clear.  The only question is: pastor, what choice will you make?

The stark choice confronting America’s pastors is why Alliance Defending Freedom created the Pulpit Initiative.  For too long pastors have lived in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation as the Johnson Amendment has been used as a weapon of censorship against the Church.  It is beyond time to remove this restriction and to restore a pastor’s right to preach freely without fear of any government censorship, intimidation, or reprisal.  The Pulpit Initiative is a plan to launch a litigation challenge against the Johnson Amendment to have it declared unconstitutional as it applies to a pastor’s sermon.  Because the unassailable fact is that no government official, high or petty, has any right to censor a pastor’s sermon, or threaten a pastor with any kind of punishment for something that is said from the pulpit during a sermon.

Pastor, visit our website to learn more about the Pulpit Initiative, and sign up to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday this year on October 5.  Make your choice and stand with hundreds of other pastors across the country who are being faithful by speaking out on the things that are being tested.

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Original Post Date: September 7, 2011


ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

chuch with parsonage

Recently, a federal judge in Wisconsin declared unconstitutional the minister’s housing allowance that has been in the tax code for well over 100 years.  This decision is on hold while it is appealed, and Alliance Defending Freedom and our allies are helping defend the constitutionality of the housing allowance.

The district court judge who struck down the housing allowance was appointed by a President, who was elected by the people and confirmed by United States Senators, who were likewise elected.  The ruling brings into sharp focus the truth that elections have consequences.

America’s pastors know all too well the impact on themselves and their families if the housing allowance were struck down for good.  One pastor, in an earlier case challenging the minister’s housing allowance, told his personal story of pastoring a small church in central California.  The church was in a financially depressed area of town with a high unemployment rate that was hit hard by the national recession.  The church of 40 was struggling to get by and needed a pastor.  A housing allowance was the only form of compensation that this church could offer to secure a pastor and this pastor graciously agreed to serve this small, needy population, receiving only a housing allowance as compensation.

If you’re a pastor of a small church, you can probably identify with this story.  Listen to what pastors said when they were asked what impact the removal of the housing allowance would have on them, their families, and their ministries:

  • “The removal of the clergy housing allowance would hamper a pastor’s ability to serve the poor, the weak and the forgotten; we serve where others do not serve or where others refuse to serve.  We alleviate the suffering of the people in our community and we relieve the government of much social work it would have to provide if we pastors were not here in poor communities.  Don’t cripple the healers.”

- Pastor Bill Devlin, Infinity Bible Church, The South Bronx, New York City

  • “If the minister’s housing allowance exemption is struck down it would be catastrophic, and I would no longer be able to provide for my family and continue in the ministry as I do now.”

 - Father Josiah Trenham, St. Andrew Orthodox Church, Riverside, California.

  • “It is shortsighted of the court to know that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 350,000 churches in America of which 50% are less than 80 members who are working with the poor, the needy, the hungry and the broken; yet the United States judiciary has effectively said, ‘Let the pastors do it with even less resource at their disposal.’”

- Pastor Kevin Baird, Legacy Church, Charleston, South Carolina

  •  “In losing my ministerial housing allowance, due to the increased tax burden it’s quite likely that I’d be forced to re-enter the secular workforce (where I worked the 1st 8 yrs. of this church’s history) where my focus and attention on tending to the spiritual needs of this fellowship would be greatly diminished.”

- Pastor Andy Fine, Calvary Chapel, Farmington, New Mexico

  • “The tax advantages that our country affords the ministry are similar to the military, both protect our country (spiritually and physically).  Taking away those advantages would make it harder financially for those called to protect our great nation.”

                        - Pastor Gus Booth, Warroad Community Church, Warroad, Minnesota

  •  “A loss of the minister’s housing allowance would add a great burden to small churches which can hardly afford to support their pastors with a fair salary.”

- Dr. Darryl DelHousaye, President of Phoenix Seminary


The potential loss of the minister’s housing allowance is just one example of the need for America’s pastors to give Biblical guidance on the vital issue of the election of leaders who set our national policy – because that policy has consequences for America’s churches.

Pastor, commit to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday on October 5, 2014.  Your flock needs to hear from you on the vital decisions they’ll make at the polls.


ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

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