Pastors Question IRS over Preaching Politics

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WASHINGTON - As the 2012 presidential election approaches, the issue of preaching politics from the pulpit is resurfacing for many pastors.

Financial advisor Dan Busby said he often hears from church leaders who worry if they speak out on a political issue or candidate, the IRS will yank their tax exempt status.

Busby's Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability helps ministries properly manage their money.

"Pastors are prohibited from speaking out on their political preferences," he explained. "They would like to have the privilege of speaking their mind."

"When you hear the folks in Westboro Baptist from Topeka, Kan., 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 added.

Still, many groups feel the rule is fair and all pastors should continue to obey.

"All groups that are tax exempt and non-profit should have to abide by the same rules," Amanda Knief, with the Secular Coalition for America, said. "And that would include churches and their employees... refrain from politicking from the pulpit."

Jordan Lorence, a religious rights lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, said the muzzling law goes back to the 1950s.

"For most of American history, there was no restriction at all on what pastors could preach from the pulpit," he said.

"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 re-election as senator," Lorence continued.

Johnson eventually amended the tax code to limit what church leaders could say.

"The Johnson amendment violates the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment," Lorence said.

Knief argues that tax exempt status for ministries isn't a constitutional right.

"This is an issue of separation of church and state, not an issue necessarily of free speech," she said. "All organizations should have to abide by the same rules, and there shouldn't be any special privilege for a religious organization."

The Alliance Defense Fund is encouraging pastors to 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," Lorence said. "We will defend them if the IRS comes after them."

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Paul  Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.