Today, Oct. 5, is being observed by some conservative Protestant pastors and churches as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” (PFS). Since 2008, a number of preachers across the country have participated in PFS, giving partisan political endorsements in their sermons.
These pastors are willing to defy the law in order to defend their right to freedom of speech—and to promote political positions and candidates that they think are biblically correct.
Since 1954, tax-exempt religious organizations have been barred from endorsing parties or candidates. The new U.S. tax code enacted then is sometimes referred to as the Johnson Amendment, as it was first proposed by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) was founded in 1994 by Bill Bright, James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, and Donald Wildmon (not to be confused with Thinking Friend Donald Wideman), among a number of other conservative Christian leaders.
In 2012, the ADF changed its name to Alliance Defending Freedom, but both before and after the name change ADF has been a leader among Christians organizations opposing the Johnson Amendment and advocating PFS as “a strategic litigation plan.”
Through “tactical lawsuits” against the IRS, the ADF says they are seeking “to restore the right of each pastor to speak scriptural Truth from the pulpit about moral, social, and governmental issues.”
They eagerly desire for each pastor to be able to speak freely from the pulpit “without fear of losing his [sic] church’s tax-exempt status.” (These quotes are from this website.)
The ADF claims the Johnson Amendment is an unconstitutional restriction of legitimate Christian discourse and a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.
The same website gives the names and location of the 1,225 churches across the nation that observed PFS last year, down considerably from the 1,620 churches that participated in 2012. That decrease was partly due to a lawsuit.
In November 2012 the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a lawsuit over conservative preachers openly defying those restrictions. (View that document here.)
That lawsuit was settled in July of this year. The FFRF claimed victory, as the IRS has now instituted a protocol for investigating tax-exempt churches and religious organizations involved in political activity.
This has not deterred the ADF from actively promoting PFS—and some 1,500 churches are expected to participate today.
Matt Barber, vice president of Liberty Counsel Action (LCA), spoke about PFS at the June 2014 Faith & Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference in Washington, D.C.
Thousands of pastors, Barber noted, have disobeyed the IRS law in acts of civil disobedience on Pulpit Freedom Sunday. LCA, headed by Mathew Staver, dean of Liberty University School of Law, wants the IRS to take punitive action so that they can challenge the law in courts.
Presently, all 50 states and the District of Columbia exempt churches from paying property tax. Moreover, donations to churches are tax-deductible. In stark contrast to ADF, LCA and other such groups, though, there are others who are asking if such tax exemptions are actually contrary to separation of church and state. That may well be the case.
So what is really at stake on this Pulpit Freedom Sunday is not the freedom to speak, but the freedom not to pay taxes, which may be questioned under the best of conditions. At present, if churches are willing to give up their tax exempt status, their pastors are completely freely to say what they want from their pulpits.
That is probably sufficient freedom—for today and for every Sunday.