When Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, endorsed presidential candidate Rick Perry on his church's website in October, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State promptly asked the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for an investigation.
Since passage of the Johnson Amendment in 1954, churches "may not participate in, or intervene in … any political campaign," according to the IRS.
Churches that don't comply could lose their tax-exempt status.
In theory. But it seems no one, not even Americans United, is expecting a quick response from the IRS.
"Right now the situation is in a holding pattern because the IRS has found its internal policies under fire by federal court ruling," said senior policy analyst Rob Boston.
A 1984 federal ruling told the IRS it needed a regional commissioner to sign off on any audits done on churches. But when the IRS reorganized in 1996, it eliminated the regional commissioner position. A Minnesota church recently argued that its IRS audit wasn't authorized by a high-enough official. In January, a federal court agreed.
Until the IRS sorts out who can authorize church audits, churches are left in limbo, said Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) senior legal counsel Erik Stanley.
"It has become an intolerable system of self-censorship," he said. "Society labels biblical issues as political, and pastors just back away."
Only one church has ever had its tax-exempt status revoked: a New York church that ran full-page newspaper ads warning voters away from Bill Clinton in 1992.
The IRS may be weak on enforcing the Johnson Amendment because of its questionable constitutionality, said Sally Wagenmaker, a tax attorney who works with nonprofits.
A constitutional challenge is the ADF's goal. It promotes an annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday that encourages pastors to preach on the moral qualifications of candidates. Participation has grown from 33 pastors in 2008 to 539 in 2011.
"The question for the church is: Is it part of what you feel God has called you to do, for such a time as this?" said Wagenmaker. "To push the envelope?"
About 85 percent of Protestant pastors believe the IRS should stay out of policing sermon content, according to an August survey by LifeWay Research. Yet a 2010 survey found that the same majority believe that pastors should not endorse candidates from the pulpit, said president Ed Stetzer.
"It would be a mistake," he said, "to draw the conclusion that because they don't want the IRS in the pulpit, they want politics in the pulpit."
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Christianity Today coverage of the issue of church endorsements includes:
To Protect Freedom, ADF Needs IRS to Punish Pastors | The ironies of "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." (October 5, 2011)
Tempted by Politics | Why many pastors want to, but shouldn't, endorse candidates. (October 2, 2008)
Endorsing from the Pulpit | Pastors launch challenge of IRS rules on endorsements. (September 25, 2008)
CT also covers political updates on its politics blog.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.