Jim Garlow is the pastor of a large Methodist Church in La Mesa, California. On October 7th, just weeks before the 2012 presidential elections, he plans to endorse a presidential candidate (and maybe congressional candidates) from the pulpit. While I cannot confirm that he will endorse Mitt Romney, I can confirm that he was an advisor to former Speaker Newt Gingrich. An initiative known as Pulpit Freedom Sunday began on a Sunday morning in October 2008, and has continued on that same Sunday each year since. In June, Garlow began meeting with other pastors across America to encourage them to do the same.
He knows such pulpit pleading could endanger his church’s tax-exempt status by violating IRS rules for a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. A charity can take a position on policy issues but cannot act “on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” To cross that line puts the $7 million mega-church’s tax break at risk.
Even so, Garlow not only intends to break the rules, he also plans to spend the next four months recruiting other pastors to do the same as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday. On that day each year since 2008, ministers intentionally try to provoke the IRS. Some even send DVD recordings of their sermons to the agency.
Last year, 539 pastors participated. This year organizers expect far more. Participants want to force the matter to court as a freedom of speech and religion issue.
“I believe we’re on the early stages of the next great awakening,” Garlow told his congregation last year. “We’re going to see it just sweep across this nation.”
The situation is fraught with peril for the IRS, which needs to be seen as apolitical. When it cracks down on political activities proscribed by the 501(c)(3) regulations, it is inevitably branded as partisan.
But according to Garlow, the senior pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, California, the conviction that “our nation, economically and morally, is in such a condition that America as we have known it for its 200-plus years is on the verge of disappearing” was enough of an impetus to break the rules.Garlow’s sermon was part of a wider effort by the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal organization that since 2008 has hosted Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a day when they encourage and promise to protect pastors who willfully violate the Johnson Amendment and endorse from the pulpit.
In 1954, the U.S. Congress amended (without debate or analysis) Internal Revenue Code §501(c)(3) to restrict the speech of non-profit tax exempt entities, including churches. Before the amendment was passed, 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 non-profits from using a substantial part of their resources to lobby for legislation.
The 1954 amendment, offered by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, stated that non-profit taxexempt entities could not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.”
Since the amendment passed, 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.
Historically, churches had frequently and fervently spoken for and against candidates for government office. Such sermons date from the founding of America, including sermons against Thomas Jefferson for being a deist; sermons opposing William Howard Taft as a Unitarian; and sermons opposing Al Smith in the 1928 presidential election. Churches have also been at the forefront of most of the significant societal and governmental changes in our history including ending segregation and child labor and advancing civil rights.
After the amendment, churches faced a choice of speaking freely on any and all issues addressed by Scripture and potentially risking their tax exemption, or remaining silent and protecting their tax exemption. Unfortunately, many churches have allowed the 1954 Johnson amendment to effectively silence their speech, even from the pulpit. Ironically, after 50 years of strict interpretation by the IRS, there is no reported situation to date where a church has lost its tax exempt status or been directly punished for sermons delivered from the pulpit. Nonetheless, the law remains unchanged. Thus, many churches accept the IRS interpretation of the Code and become silent.
Rather than declining in prevalence over time, this regulation has been strengthened. The last change was made to it back in 1987, when the amendment’s language was tightened to clarify that the restrictions should also cover statements and stances that stand against candidates (previously it was interpreted to only stand for statements that supported specific candidates).
The IRS describes a 501(c)(3) as a group:
“which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
Questions: (1) When we talk about free birth control for all women, are we not taking a stand directly against Barack Obama and certain members of Congress? (2) Are Sanctuary Churches and Cities not political speech?
Churches and individuals who believe that slavery, segregation, and racial prejudice are “abominations before God” should never be denied the right to voice that belief either as individuals or from the pulpit? Those who oppose same-sex marriage, homosexuality, or civil unions have the same rights of advocacy. I can remember having led a public prayer asking God to end the war in Vietnam. Ministers who oppose abortion and contraception have every right to teach that from the pulpit and embrace those as part of church liturgy. I am working on a speech that I will make in the pulpit of a Unitarian congregation, within which I will probably quote Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
In my lifetime, I have known few (maybe none) that believe “slavery, segregation and racial prejudice” are NOT an abomination before God, but Peach makes pertinent points – we should have the right to voice our beliefs in a sanctuary, and if no one wants to listen, so be it. Think of the madrassas found in residential areas. Do you think they are not “endorsing,” and “getting out the vote” with that endorsement?
I would like to see Pulpit Freedom every Sunday. Further, I would like to see the denominational member churches belonging to the National Council of Churches (United Methodists are members) take a stance against the NCC’s extremely Liberal stance and activities, which they fund with my tithes to my Methodist church. The NCC:
● Supports “environmental stewardship” (global warming) with 2012 ushering in a study of “Ethics in Energy.”
And they are advocates for all of the above, and that advocacy is done in the Name of Jesus Christ, and achieved from the tithes of so many of us.
In my state of Oklahoma, The Oklahoma Conference of Churches (of which the Methodist church is a member, sponsored a fundraiser for CAIR (Council of American Islamic Relations). A fundraiser! A fundraiser for an unindicted co-conspirator on the War on Terror. CAIR – an organization that funded terrorism through the Holy Land Foundation, which funds Hamas. An organization which has full freedom to roam the halls of Congress and routinely fills employment positions in the offices of Liberal congressional members.
With an NCC emphasis on Gender Justice, The Oklahoma Conference of Churches would have actually done some “justice” had they addressed the egregious conditions women, girls and young boys live under Islam. A pox on their fundraising for CAIR.
Suffice it to say, there is plenty to be said from America’s pulpits. We need Patriot Pastors in every city – like this one. So far, in Tulsa, I haven’t found one. I believe I am accurate in saying that when you send money to your local church, and that church is a member of the National Council of Churches, if Methodist, 2% of your church donation is sent to the “Mother” church, and from there donations are made to the National Council of Churches.
UPDATE 9/28/12: In <strike>500</strike> 1000-some churches, out of thousands, we have one Sunday of the year donated to “endorsing” political candidates with the assurance that the Alliance Defense Fund will come to your aid should you be investigated or sued. We have only one Sunday because churches fear being investigated and punished by the IRS, even though the record shows us the IRS has historically stayed away from these conflicts. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are political in everything they say and do. Sharpton is a known tax cheat, but retains his tax exempt status. Black Liberation Theology churches engage in weekly rhetoric that surely would not pass the Johnson Amendment test. Comparing Barack Obama to “Jesus Christ” from the pulpit on Christmas morning has not bothered the IRS, and that statement was not made on Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
I will pray for these pastors and the Alliance Defense Fund for standing behind all those who will speak the truth, however that truth is seen, from America’s churches. If Islamic centers across our Nation are tax exempt, surely our traditional pastors should not feel threatened. (If I rambled, my apologies. I’m out the door to a Southern Gospel music event to “Celebrate America.”)
Readers, BobF has left an insightful comment below this article. I hope you have time to read a statement that clearly shows how we got to the place we are today