Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

November 3, 2012

Local pastors get political at pulpit

1,500 churches nationwide talk candidates for Pulpit Freedom Sunday

By Megan Graham
Tribune business writer

Kokomo — Sunday, pastors all around the country will take a moment to tell their congregations to vote the way God would want them to.

On the last Sunday before Election Day, churches involved with Pulpit Freedom Sunday will call on their congregations to vote in a way that is consonant with their religious beliefs.

More than 1,500 churches in the U.S. publicly have participated in the program this year — 31 in Indiana alone. The event began in 2008 to oppose the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which states tax-exempt entities may not officially favor or oppose a political candidate.

Proponents of Pulpit Freedom Sunday, organized by a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom, believe the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional and want to invoke a test case so it can be retried in the Supreme Court in hopes that it might be overturned. Though the official date of the event was Oct. 7, many pastors chose to reserve their political sermons closer to Election Day.

Pastor Logan Westrick at Ash Street Wesleyan Church in Tipton participated in the event on the 7th, publicly announcing his church’s participation on an online list.

“We just feel like preachers ought to have the freedom to preach truth and preach against the sins of this country,” he said. “We don’t preach against the people that are running for government or for the president, we don’t speak against the person himself — that would be wrong. All we do is speak on the morals of our society and tell the people: Vote your conscience. Whoever you vote for, vote your conscience.”

Westrick, unlike many other pastors involved in the event, said he didn’t explicitly endorse one candidate. Instead, he said he discussed the issues, then discussed them in a Christian light. He keeps his personal vote to himself.

“You vote the way you want to,” he said. “I can’t pull that lever for you. It’s not my business to make up their minds.”

Erik Stanley, Pulpit Freedom Sunday’s senior legal counsel, said the organization urges participating churches to give a sermon that violates the Johnson Amendment, so that the IRS may retaliate and eventually result in a test case.

“In order to do that, the sermon has to include candidates and elections,” he said. “What we tell them is basically that a Pulpit Freedom Sunday sermon is one that evaluates candidates running for office in light of Scripture, and to make specific recommendations based on that evaluation.”

Stanley said the IRS has been silent so far despite rampant violations of the tax code. This is partially because the auditing process for churches employed by the IRS is stalled while internal procedures are restructured. Stanley said usually, if the IRS believes a church has violated the Johnson Amendment, they’ll institute an audit. And if that audit finds there has been a violation, a church can receive penalties or fines.

Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, believes the case would not be overturned.

“I have heard the argument for many years that the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional, but it has been tested in court and has been upheld,” he said. “If an organization wants to get involved in partisan politics like that, the answer is for it to surrender its tax-exempt status.”

Boston said his organization has received hundreds of complaints this year about partisan politicking of churches.

“We certainly would like to see the tax agency be aggressive in this area,” he said. “Some of the things I’ve seen this year aren’t gray areas. They are clear violations. I do think things are rapidly coming to a head. It’s a widespread problem, and the IRS is going to have to address it sooner or later.”

Despite being illegal, Boston doesn’t believe a pastor should share his or her political beliefs.

“People are capable for making up their own minds to vote,” he said. “They don’t need or expect orders from their pastors.”

Megan Graham is the Kokomo Tribune business reporter. She can be reached by phone at 765-454-8570 or by email at megan.graham@kokomotribune.com.