The Alliance Defending Freedom is looking to pick a fight—for a good cause.
"For years, we'd gotten many requests from pastors on what they could legally say and do," says Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. "Until we sat down in 2007 and took a hard look at the Johnson Amendment itself"—the 1954 law forbidding nonprofit entities from speaking for or against candidates for office—"and we came to the conclusion that the law was blatantly unconstitutional."
But legal issues can't be filed on theoretical grounds. In order for ADF to get its day in court, it needed the Internal Revenue Service to accuse a church, go through an administrative process and actually penalize it. Then, and only then, could ADF make its First Amendment case.
For all that to happen, a church—or, more likely, a lot of churches—had to be willing to get in trouble with the government. Maybe big trouble.
So ADF launched Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an annual event in which pastors preach a sermon on the intersection of politics and scriptural truth in a way that expresses support for—or opposition to—political candidates.
How many pastors have been willing to go out on a limb for that cause? A veritable army: Since the first Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008, ADF reports that 4,000 pastors have taken part.
One of those pastors is Steve Riggle of Grace Community Church in Houston, who's no stranger to facing hostility from the powers that be. Last year, Houston Mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed his sermons, along with those of several other pastors, in retaliation for their opposition to an ordinance mandating gender-neutral public restrooms.
"I'm always up for a challenge," says Riggle. "It's great to finally call the IRS out with the backing of (ADF's) attorneys. Those guys are the real deal. We needed folks like this to come along, and I take my hat off to them."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation naturally, feels otherwise. The group has cited Pulpit Freedom Sunday as a primary example of the sort of thing the IRS must crack down on. ADF says: Bring it on.
"We're eager to bring the issue to a head in court," says Stanley, who has spearheaded the event from the start. "Pastors have a right to speak freely from the pulpit, and not be intimidated or punished for doing so. We want to get the IRS out of the pulpit once and for all."
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
To learn more about Pulpit Freedom Sunday and how your church can take part, visit http://bit.ly/1Oaqary.