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Pastors to take on IRS in plan to preach politics from the pulpit

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Pastor Jim Garlow from San Diego's evangelical Skyline Church, left, talks with openly gay church member Dean Hughes. (AP)

More than 1,000 religious leaders across America will take part today in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” a plan that has pastors endorsing political candidates from the pulpit in defiance of an Internal Revenue Service rule.

Pastors are hoping their bold move will prompt the IRS to enforce the 1954 tax code, the so-called Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, from making political endorsements. The law states it is illegal for churches that receive tax-exempt status from the federal government to intervene in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

Alliance Defending Freedom, which is holding the summit, said it wants the IRS to press the matter so it can be decided in court. The group believes the law violates the First Amendment by “muzzling” preachers.

"It is a head-on constitutional challenge.”

- Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel

“The purpose is to make sure that the pastor -- and not the IRS -- decides what is said from the pulpit,” Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the group, told FoxNews.com. “It is a head-on constitutional challenge.”

Stanley said pastors attending “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” will “preach sermons that will talk about the candidates running for office” and then “make a specific recommendation.” The sermons will be recorded and sent to the IRS.  

“We’re hoping the IRS will respond by doing what they have threatened,” he said. “We have to wait for it to be applied to a particular church or pastor so that we can challenge it in court. We don’t think it’s going to take long for a judge to strike this down as unconstitutional.”

Stanley and others, like San Diego pastor Jim Garlow, say the IRS regularly threatens churches that they will lose their tax-exempt status if they preach politics. But Stanley and Garlow claim the government never acts on the threat because it wants to avoid a court battle.

“It is blatantly unconstitutional,” said Stanley. “They just prefer to put out these vague statements and regulations and enforce it through a system of intimidation … Pastors are afraid to address anything political from the pulpit.”

“The IRS will send out notices from time to time and say you crossed the line,” added Garlow, a senior pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego. “But when it’s time to go to court, they close the case.”

A spokeswoman for the IRS did not comment on the matter and instead referred all inquiries to the government’s online handbook.

Garlow and other pastors say their concerns over the code extend well beyond the law.

“I’m very concerned about the spiritual side of this,” Garlow told FoxNews.com. “There’s a phenomenon occurring in America and that’s a loss of religious liberty.”

“If I would have said 50 years that ‘Tearing up a baby in the womb is a bad thing,’ people would have said ‘Of course it is,’” Garlow said. “But If I said that today, people would say ‘Pastor, you’re being too political.”

Fox News’ Cristina Corbin contributed to this report.

 

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