Today, Oct. 7, is the fifth annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday
. At least 1,500 pastors will give sermons about politics. This is raw politics, premeditated violations of the IRS's tax exemption guidelines. Their message: Come and get us. Go on. Sue us. See what happens.
Calvary Chapel's pastor, Robert Hall, was one of the first guys into the pool. In 2008, he joined 30
other pastors and gave a political sermon. Nothing happened. (He'd given $700
to Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign, but was otherwise on the campaign sidelines.) In 2009, the number of pastors expanded, and Hall gave another sermon. Nothing. Every year he'd talk, and the IRS would ignore him. Finally, on "the Monday before Easter" this year, the IRS sent him notice it was "looking into it."
Hall offers me the drink he usually gets after a sermon -a salted caramel mocha from the chapel's cafe, served in a Tigger mug - and pronounces the threat to be ineffective. "I just laughed at the subtlety. That's almost harassment. But apart from that they've never said a word to me."
That's the beauty and the problem of Pulpit Freedom Day. Churches, by long-standing tax law and constitutional tradition, are tax-exempt 501c3s. They don't even have to apply for 501c3 status. They don't have to file 990 tax returns.
The Obama administration has not shaken down churches; literally none of them have been prosecuted for political speech since Obama took office, since the IRS dropped a case
against a pastor in Rep. Michele Bachmann's district.
But pastors argue that the 1954 "Johnson amendment" has had a silencing effect, as Lyndon Johnson intended when he changed the law governing tax-exempt organizations. The amendment threatened revocation of status for institutions that "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of -or in opposition to -any candidate for public office."
That didn't stop religious leaders from barreling into politics. One year after the amendment passed, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a bus boycott in Montgomery. But today's conservative pastors pine for a time when they could mobilize their congregations without any sort of end-runs or careful wording