Church Endorsements and the IRS


BRYAN FISCHER (at microphone): “You are on board the USS Focal Point. It is our patrol boat. This is not a pleasure cruise. This is a patrol boat in which we patrol the choppy waters of America’s public life looking for the intersection of truth and politics.”

LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: Bryan Fischer’s program is on 125 radio stations and on television in three states. To say he represents the far right of the Christian right is probably not saying enough. But because he works for the American Family Association, a nonprofit organization, he has to be careful not to endorse or oppose a political candidate, although he’s been known to push that line as far as he can.

FISCHER (at microphone): “We have a lawless president. Ladies and gentlemen, he reminds me of a juvenile delinquent is really what he reminds me of. He’s like a street thug.”

SEVERSON: Fischer, a former pastor, has strong views on just about everything, especially the nonprofit statute known as 501c3 of the IRS tax code that exempts churches from income and property taxes and prohibits opposing or recommending political candidates.

(to Fischer): It has been said of you that you push the limit as far as you can. That you won’t say go vote against Obama, but you come as close as you can.

Bryan FischerFISCHER: I am just observing the bright line that the IRS has established. This is what the IRS has said, that’s the bright line, and I observe that line.

SEVERSON: Do you think that line is unfair?

FISCHER: Absolutely. And it’s completely unconstitutional.

SEVERSON: That view is shared by an increasing number of pastors around the country who are joining an effort called Pulpit Freedom Sunday to challenge the IRS. Pastor Jim Garlow of the Skyline Wesleyan megachurch in La Mesa, California is one of the leaders of the movement.

PASTOR JIM GARLOW (Lead Pastor, Skyline Wesleyan Church): We believe there should be no government intrusion in the pulpit at all. A pastor should be—if he wants to endorse or oppose a candidate and that should be the right of a pastor based on the First Amendment. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion; no governmental intrusion into the pulpit.

SEVERSON: He says there may be as many as 2000 pastors joining Pulpit Freedom Sunday this year deliberately flaunting 501c3, by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. It’s not illegal, but it could result in their loss of their tax breaks. Some pastors will send DVDs of those sermons to the IRS. But Pastor Bryan Collier of the United Methodist church in Tupelo, Mississippi, with a congregation of about 2500, won’t be joining in.

Pastor Bryan CollierPASTOR BRYAN COLLIER (Lead Pastor, The Orchard United Methodist Church): It’s not something we’re going to do, not going to participate in. We’re called as the community of faith to do what we’re supposed to do, and I think the status that has been afforded to us by the government is a nice bonus, but status or no status, it doesn’t change what our mission is.

GARLOW: I think it has had an alarming impact on the American pulpit. I think pastors have shied away, pastors have been hesitant, pastors aren’t sure where the line is, pastors have been intimidated.

COLLIER: We’ve never really looked over our shoulder here and said we can’t do or we shouldn’t do this or advance that program based on some status that’s assigned to us.

SEVERSON: Pastor Jeffery Daniel of the White Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Tupelo doesn’t endorse candidates, but he does seem to be looking over his shoulder.

PASTOR JEFFERY DANIEL (White Hill Missionary Baptist Church): I know there are some that feel a little bit bolder and will get more into actually saying we need to get behind these individuals, but I believe there are other ways to do that without creating such big problems for the church.

Pastor James HullSEVERSON: Pastor James Hull of the Mount Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Taylor, Mississippi says, contrary to popular misconception, black churches that he knows of do not endorse political candidates.

PASTOR JAMES HULL (Mount Hope Missionary Baptist Church): Probably the greatest politically oriented or inclined preacher in the history of this country, which was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—it is a misnomer to say that black churches have endorsed political candidates. Black churches have endorsed political movements.

DANIEL: We’re a people of influence, and that’s a lot of weight to carry, and to just come out and say, hey, we need to get behind this guy—I don’t think that’s our job. What I think we’re supposed to do is inform them about, you know, making sure that they do vote and that they understand what’s at stake.

GARLOW: What I will do on Pulpit Freedom Sunday is simply to outline what are some of the key biblical issues in this year’s election, and then who are some of the candidates in opposition to biblical truth? Who are some of the candidates running in support of biblical truth? As a follower of Jesus Christ, I want to encourage people to vote for people who would follow biblical truth.

SEVERSON: Do you have any idea how many churches have been audited, how many churches have lost their nonprofit status?

Pastor Jim GarlowGARLOW: There’s not a single church that’s lost its nonprofit status in 58 years.

SEVERSON: In fact, at least one church briefly lost its nonprofit status in 1992 in Binghamtomn NY after the church purchased a full page ad opposing presidential nominee Bill Clinton. It is difficult to know about audits because the IRS doesn’t disclose them, but in the vast majority of cases the agency simply issues a warning. So then why is Pulpit Freedom Sunday necessary?

GARLOW: Because an unjust law is still on the books. It is unconstitutional, many believe, and if it’s unconstitutional and that law stands, it needs to be removed.

SEVERSON: Marcus Owens worked for the IRS for 25 years. He was the head of the Exempt Organization Division. Owens says many people don’t understand that the 501c3 law was created by Congress, not the IRS.

MARCUS OWENS: So the Congress has on at least two occasions subsequent to the enactment of 1954 of the original prohibition, reaffirmed and increased the penalty on intervention in political campaigns.

SEVERSON: So if these pastors got a gripe, they should take it to their congressman or congresswoman?

Marcus OwensOWENS: That’s how one changes the law in a democracy, yes.

SEVERSON: It turns out the most likely outcome for the Pulpit Freedom Sunday movement may be only the national attention it gets. That’s because the law requires that an IRS regional commissioner to authorize any church audits. Since the IRS reorganized a few years ago, there are no longer regional commissioners, so there is no one to authorize an audit, and there won’t be until Congress rewrites the law.

OWENS: That effectively shut down every IRS church investigation other than criminal investigations. The efforts by Pulpit Freedom Sunday to goad the IRS into an audit of churches simply will not occur.

SEVERSON: The movement at this point may be more symbolic than anything. But that doesn’t diminish the conviction of those like Bryan Fisher, who see the law as an attack on their freedom of religion and speech.

FISCHER: There would be no United States of America if America’s pastors had not had the freedom from their pulpits to declare the truth as they saw it. So I think a key part of reclaiming America’s future is to turn our pastors loose so they’re able to declare without any hesitation boldly, as they are prompted to do, the values that they find in the scriptures.

SEVERSON: Pastor Hull thinks Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a bad idea—that it will do more to divide the country than to bring it together.

HULL: This Pulpit Sunday, it’s being couched in fear about what they are taking away from us—they’re taking away our liberties and they’re taking away our country, that somehow or other there’s this big boogie man who’s trying to take away the country. From whom? Whose country is it?

SEVERSON: Pulpit Freedom Sunday is scheduled take place October 7.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in Tupelo, Mississippi.

  • Channah

    ” There’s not a single church that’s lost its nonprofit status in 58 years”

    Well, it is about time many of them did. The right wing, fanatical, holier than thou Christians are really scary. They want all the rights and benfits that they want to take away from those who do not agree with them.

  • El Sabio

    Would it not be “more Christian” for a church wanting to endorse candidates to pay taxes, thus “rendering unto Caesar” (a Christian value, according to Jesus), thus freeing the congregation from any prohibitions. There is no law against pastors and churches endorsing or condemning candidates. Pay your taxes and go at it. If you want the exemption, then there is a price to be paid. Why not practice some pastoral integrity on this issue ?
    Some day pastors and churches will come to their senses on this issue.

  • Chris Pawelski

    These religious dudes can say whatever they please from their pulpits … they can preach that space aliens are coming to take us all away soon and only Mitt Romney can save us … but here is the deal, the 501(c)3 tax code means that their speech becomes taxpayer subsidized indirectly via how the code works. So, I happen to not agree with most of these blathering idiots and I don’t want my taxpayer dollars indirectly subsidizing their political message.

    If they want to feed the poor or do charity, fine, but if they want to get into the public policy or political business then they need to play by the same rules as everyone else and they need to be taxed because I resent these jerks having their political viewpoints being indirectly subsidized by my tax dollars via the 501(c)3 code.

    Any of the idiots that does this and sends in proof of it to the IRS needs to have their status YANKED! It is the law … and didn’t Jesus say something about “giving Caesar’s things to Caesar?”

  • Richard

    What is even worse is the brain dead “americans” who have no fear of God and the fact that this country was built on religious freedom which is slowly being stripped away. And it the anti God government has it’s way that will be the beginning of the end of a once great country. Then when they shove a bunch of new laws and regulations down your throats you will pray that the god you have no clue about will save you. Wake up america and stand for what you beileive not what they want you to believe. We live in a country dependent on the big brother government to take care of us not the creator.

  • JDE

    How many of these conservative pastors would defend the right of a liberal Christian to endorse a candidate?

  • JWH

    American pastors have freedom of speech and religion. That has never been threatened. To claim otherwise is disingenuous. What is true is that church’s enjoy a special tax status. Any pastor who feels constrained in the pulpit over this issue shows that he is more concerned money than he is his religion. Churches should be willing to lose their tax status because all it impacts is their finances.

    Jesus warned that Christians cannot serve two masters: money and Christ. Pastors who complain about the requirements of this special tax status have forgotten that in my opinion.

  • Kathleen

    Are you a Pastor or are you a Politician? The two do not mix! I cannot count the number of times I have watched so called “Christian” politicians lie their butt off about their opponents in an election. It is not the job of ministers or pastors or preachers to tell me how to think, how to vote, or to run my life for me. Your job is to preach the Word of God, period! Your first duty as a Pastor is to try to think and act like Jesus. Most of you fall short of the mark. You are nasty, judgemental, arrogant, and care more about money and power than bringing the message and example of Jesus Christ to the world!

  • undrgrndgirl

    no problem.
    give up your 501c3 status and pay your taxes then you can endorse or discourage voting for whomever you want.

  • undrgrndgirl

    i found this whole piece a bit disingenuous and misleading.

    churches are not required to be 501c3. they do so to get tax breaks (and more importantly to allow donors to get tax breaks). in order to qualify for those tax breaks they must agree not to endorse or oppose individual candidates. this is ALSO required of ALL OTHER 501c3 non-profit organizations (including educational organizations, child welfare organizations, animal welfare organizations, museum, libraries, hospitals, schools, etc).

    if a pastor wishes not to follow that rule, s/he is free to relinquish a churches 501c3 status and pay taxes AND give up the tax benefit they provide for their supporters (donations would no longer be tax deductible for the donor).

    can’t have it both ways.

    pay up or shut up, it’s that simple.

  • Tom B

    “GARLOW: There’s not a single church that’s lost its nonprofit status in 58 years.”

    Only because they have been kowtowed to silence. It is common history that the creation of the 501c3 laws were to punish a group of Texas Pastors who opposed Lyndon Johnston when he was in Congress. And the threat of its use has been used numerous times against those who do not tow the Progressive line. It was meant to silence the conservative politics of the overwhelming majority of Churches, as you have watchdog groups, such as the Freedom From Religon Foundation, waiting to register complaints against said “Conservative” Churches should they discuss “forbidden” political subjects.

    I also find that Pastor Hull’s comment rather strange, in that there are numerous examples of “Black” Church Pastors endorsing candidates on the Left. As the Democratic Party begins to push its radical, and in my opinion unBiblical agenda, we are finding a growing number of Black Ministers either abandoning Politics altogether or publically reconcidering th Conservative arguments in light of Biblical mandates. What will be curious is whether the Government bureauracy will threaten them now.

    Tom Bryant
    BA, Philosophy – Clemson Univ.
    MA, Religious Studies – Univ. of South Florida

  • Politicarl

    Pastors have every right to advocate for political candidates and causes. They are most welcome to exercise their freedom of speech. But with every freedom there is also responsibility, and these pastors and their churches have to realize that, with their choice to exercise their freedom of speech in the political realm, they are also choosing to fulfill their responsibility to pay taxes rather than claim exemption from taxation.

    There is no restriction that prevents pastors from speaking freely in their pulpits. They have complete freedom of choice in this matter. But every choice has its consequences and they need to be willing to embrace the consequences of their choices. Until the law is changed, theirs is a choice between freedom from taxation and freedom of political advocacy. And there are good reasons for the law being as it is, whether they like it or not.

  • kathy


  • Jade

    Free speech is a right guaranteed by the constitution.
    Tax exemption is a privilege not guaranteed by the constitution.
    Why is this so hard for them to understand?

  • Rick

    The point of the exercise is that the news media & Hollywood should not be the only one’s to provide a society input on moral issues. Political or not. I believe that those who tithe will not reneg on thier faith commitment since its a God motivated activity. By the way, did you miss the fact that what gov’t officials did to Chic-Fil-A was religous persecution according to the U.S Dept. of Justice (definitions are under civil rights violations on the DOJ website) AND DO YOU THINK A POLITICALLY SAVY MAN LIKE THE EX-WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF DID THAT WITHOUT INFORMING HIS OLD BOSS IN AN ELECTION YEAR ?

  • Ashley H.

    I watched this airing and it is sad that so many so-called religious “teachers” are blatantly going against what the person they claim to be following even believed.

    The Christ himself would not get involved in the politics of his day and he prayed in John 17 that his disciples be “no part of the world” just as he was “no part of the world”.

    No REAL Christian should be backing any human government.

    People pray the “Our Father” prayer but really don’t know what they are saying.

    “Let Thy Kingdom Come”… you can you pray for God’s government that Jesus campaigned for and then back some human government that obviously does not listen to what the Bible teaches?

    Seems a little weird right?

  • Mr. Mike

    Seperation of church and state. Pulpit Sunday is a bad idea and it wets the groundwork for gov’t internvnetion in a facist world to rid the state of religeous freedoms they enjoy today. This is the reason that after the Congress has twice reviewed this law and has upheld it and even increased the penelties. Re-establish the IRS regional inspectors.

  • Dave

    I have noticed plenty of pastors endorsing Democrats such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Barrack Obama. How come I never hear any body complain about that or the IRS clamping down on them. It is surreal. It happens all the time. They just go ahead and endorse these guys and no one says anything. Not even the so called right wing talk show hosts. Some Democrat candidates have even spoken in Churches. Why is it they get a pass and if a republican is endorsed from a pastor everyone tries to shut them up.

  • whisperingsage1

    Why do any churches apply for 501 c3 when they are already covered by 508 c 1 A?