More than 1,300 pastors around the country, including at least two in East Texas, will participate Sunday in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” to preach political sermons and send the video to the IRS.
The movement has been growing since it began in 2008 with 33 churches to more than 500 churches last year, Stanley said.
But opponents to politicized sermons say they are actually a threat to religious liberty.
“Personally, as a Baptist minister, nothing is more essential to religious liberty than the separation of church and state,” said the Rev. Steven Baines with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “If we politicize from the pulpit, we’re turning our houses of worship into Super PACS.”
At least two pastors are participating in the movement, David Dykes of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler and Dan Cummins of Bridlewood Church in Bullard.
“It has to do with freedom of speech,” Cummins said. “Clergy are the only Americans who have a restriction on their right to free speech … I’m more interested in the spiritual aspect of it. Unless pastors are free to preach, we will not have a spiritual revival … we have to draw a line in the sand.”
Pastors are still free to voice their political opinions, just not from the pulpit or in church newsletters, Baines said.
“Pastors can use their own personal resources and finances to endorse political candidates,” he said. “They can write a letter to the editor saying, ‘I’m the Rev. so-and-so.’ That preserves religious freedom.”
“I believe that the blame for the moral decline in America is because pastors have largely been silent about speaking out boldly and courageously about moral issues that have now become political issues — abortion, same-sex unions etc.,” Dykes said in an email exchange. “Part of this silence has been because of the misunderstanding of the IRS law that pastors can’t engage in ‘political statements.’ I believe the 1954 Johnson amendment that made such speech illegal is a violation of the First Amendment freedom of the free exercise of religion. So, that’s why I’m joining over a thousand other pastors this Sunday in intentionally violating this law and speaking out about the upcoming election.”
So far, no churches associated with the movement have been penalized, and the organization is prepared to provide pastors with free legal counsel in the event of any lawsuit, Stanley said.
“If the IRS chooses never to respond, the movement will grow,” he said.
In the 1980s, the late Jerry Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour and the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network were both penalized by the IRS.
Church members have called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and reported that their church has been penalized — for supporting candidates on both sides of the political spectrum, Baines said.
“We simply want everyone to play by the same rules,” he said.
“The fact that candidates may align themselves on one side or another of an issue does not restrict the ability of religious organizations to engage in discussions of that issue. That said, a religious organization may nonetheless violate the political campaign intervention prohibition if it communicates preferences for or against particular candidates as part of its issue discussions.”
According to the guide, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case on the issue as recently as January of this year.
“In this case, the IRS imposed an excise tax on Catholic Answers, a religious nonprofit organization that is exempt from federal income taxes under section 501(c)(3),” it reads. “In 2004, after the organization published a voter guide on its website as well as a series of newsletters arguing that Sen. John Kerry (then the presumptive Democratic candidate for president) should not receive Communion in Roman Catholic churches, the IRS determined that the organization had engaged in improper electioneering.”