In direct challenge to IRS rules, a legal defense group has encouraged pastors from across the nation to use their pulpits to endorse political candidates.
Tax laws currently bar pastors from such public endorsements and doing so could cost a church its tax-exempt status.
"These pastors are sending their sermons to the IRS, and inviting the IRS to take a look at the issue.," Alliance Defense Fund Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley.
The ADF is a legal alliance dedicated to "defending the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and litigation," according to a statement on its Web site.
The challenge was more than merely defiant - it was a strategic move meant to lure the IRS into legal battle.
"It's designed to restore the right of pastors to freely speak from the pulpit on Scriptural issues related to candidates and elections, without government censorship or control," Stanley explained
Now it appears that the ADF may get its day in court. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State have retaliated by filing complaints with the IRS against the churches involved.
"This has been tested in the courts, the provision has been upheld, and if they go into court they're going to lose," Rob Boston of Americans United said.
The IRS has vowed to "monitor the situation and take action as appropriate."
IRS code currently allows churches to pass out voter guides, hold non-partisan voter registration drives, and host forums on issues. But churches are barred from endorsing political candidates - either directly or indirectly.
"ADF will oppose any attempt by the IRS to use the Johnson Amendment to remove a church's tax-exempt status because a pastor exercised his constitutional right to engage in religious speech from the pulpit," Stanley said. "The goal is to have the Johnson Amendment declared unconstitutional."
"If you have a concern about pastors speaking about electoral candidates from the pulpit, ask yourself this: Should the church decide that question, or should the IRS?" Stanley said. "IRS rules don't trump the Constitution-and the First Amendment certainly trumps the Johnson Amendment. Churches were tax exempt long before the IRS even existed."
Source: Alliance Defense Fund, The Associated Press