Pulpit Freedom Sunday Sparks Growing Movement In U.S. Churches
Who decides what a pastor can preach from the pulpit—his church, or his government?
That question lies at the heart of Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an event organized for the last five years by Alliance Defending Freedom to challenge government efforts to censor, intimidate, and dictate to pastors what they can and cannot preach from their pulpits.
Pastors who take part in the event elect to address the political positions of candidates from a biblical perspective, providing their congregations with godly insight into tough questions while defying an Internal Revenue Service regulation designed to keep them from doing just that.
The IRS regulation—popularly known as the Johnson Amendment—was passed by Congress in 1954 as an amendment to section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code. Pushed through by then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, the law linked a church’s tax-exempt status to its willingness to remain silent on political issues and candidates. Since even moral issues as fundamental as abortion and same-sex "marriage" can be labeled "political" (and often factor into why people vote for or against a given candidate), the IRS has been urged by some activist groups to use the amendment against churches that address candidates’ positions.
"The objective of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is to create a court case that will challenge the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment in court," says Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel and director of Alliance Defending Freedom’s Church Project—a larger, ongoing effort to detect and defend against legal threats to churches nationwide. Pastors who participate in the event not only preach on the ostensibly "forbidden" issues, but mail a copy of their sermon to the IRS. They’re effectively inviting prosecution … with the understanding that Alliance Defending Freedom will step in to defend them, free of charge, should the IRS accept that invitation.
The IRS, though, has yet to follow up with, much less prosecute, any participating pastor. Meanwhile, the number of pastors participating has grown exponentially since the first event in 2008. That first year, 33 pastors from 22 states took part; this year, over 1,600 pastors from all 50 states (plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico) stepped up—three times as many as last year.
An extraordinarily diverse array of denominations has been represented: everything from biker and cowboy churches to Messianic Jewish congregations. Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Hispanic, and Native American groups have all taken part. Last October, the event was the focus of more than 170 media stories in outlets from CNN to Time.
"We’re not trying to turn churches into political machines. We’re trying to free pastors to speak from their pulpits." Erik Stanley Alliance Defending Freedom
And yet, even among many, both in and out of the faith, there’s been vocal pushback from those who see Pulpit Freedom Sunday as a major step toward politicizing churches. An editorial in the Bloomberg View of October 3, 2012, for instance, suggested that "The line between religious belief and political action is often indistinct," and that "pastors demanding government tax preferences for political crusades have clearly crossed it." Stanley disagrees.
"We’re not trying to turn churches into political machines. We’re trying to free pastors to speak from their pulpits in the way they feel led," he says. "We recognize that pastors and their church leaders may disagree among themselves about whether a pastor ought to talk about candidates in an election from the pulpit—but we should all agree that it’s not the government’s job to tell pastors they can’t talk about these issues."
But should churches be in the business of challenging government, many ask. Doesn’t the idea of Pulpit Freedom Sunday basically encourage pastors to break the law? Stanley, again, says no.
"We’re encouraging pastors to exercise their constitutionally protected rights. This is not civil disobedience. This is civil obedience of the highest kind, because we are demanding that the government abide by the Constitution, the supreme law of the land." Through this event, he says, pastors "are setting up a legal test case to challenge the constitutionality of a very unconstitutional law."
These pastors are discovering not only that their people want to hear a biblical perspective on the most volatile issues of our day, Stanley says, but that "when America’s pastors are free to speak from their pulpit on all of the issues the Bible talks about, our country is better for it."