WASHINGTON -- With the 2012 election campaign heating up, many pastors across America may have a lot to say about it.
But they can't. They've been gagged by the Internal Revenue Service.
However, one of the country's rising political stars is telling pastors they can talk about issues in the pulpit. They just can't officially endorse or oppose political candidates.
"You never want to lead anyone to possibly believe that you on behalf of your church are endorsing a candidate," Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said.
Cuccinelli explained that pastors could threaten their churches' tax-exempt status because of IRS rules forbidding endorsements.
"If they're going to set up tax structures like they have, they have some legal authority in our country to do that," he said. "And I would certainly encourage you to stay away from those lines. Don't get close to them."
As the 2012 campaign gets underway, many pastors are torn about what they can say when it comes to politics.
"Pastors are prohibited from speaking out on their political preferences," Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, said.
Busby helps ministries watch their finances to make sure everything is above board. His group often hears from pastors who worry if they speak out too forcefully on a political issue or about candidates, the IRS will yank their tax-exempt status.
"They would like to have the privilege of speaking their mind," Busby said.
Atheist and secularist groups on the other hand feel this legal obstacle is fair and good.
"All groups that are tax-exempt and non-profit should have to abide by the same rules, and that would include churches and their employees, and refrain from politicking from the pulpit," said Amanda Knief, government relations manager for the Secular Coalition for America.
"For most of American history, there was no restriction at all on what pastors could preach from the pulpit," said Jordan Lorence, Alliance Defense Fund attorney.
Lorence said this current muzzling law goes back to the 1950s.
"Lyndon Baines Johnson when he was the majority leader of the Senate basically got irritated with some pastors who were on the radio opposing his reelection as senator," he explained.
LBJ forced through the Johnson amendment to the tax code, which Lorence insists is unconstitutional.
"The Johnson amendment violates the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment. That's why the IRS has been very reluctant to enforce it," Lorence said.
"When you hear the folks in Westboro Baptist from Topeka, Kansas, speak out as they do around military funerals, and yet pastors can't have the privilege of speaking out on political candidates, there seems to be an imbalance," Busby said.
"This is an issue of separation of church and state, not an issue necessarily of free speech," Knief argues.
Knief and other atheists argue that tax exempt status for these ministries isn't a constitutional right.
"All organizations should have to abide by the same rules, and there shouldn't be any special privilege for a religious organization," she said.
Lorence's Alliance Defense Fund is encouraging pastors to actually defy the law.
"We urge pastors to exercise their First Amendment rights and speak out on candidates and what they say in light of the Scriptures from the pulpit," he explained. "And we will defend them if the IRS comes after them."