IRS withdraws audit on Minn. pastor’s sermons

ADF attorneys say federal agency is leaving churches in limbo
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

WARROAD, Minn. — The Internal Revenue Service has stopped investigating Pastor Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church over sermons he preached as part of the Alliance Defense Fund’s Pulpit Initiative last year.

Booth originally sent the IRS a copy of a sermon he preached in May 2008 with regard to the primary elections. After participating in the Pulpit Initiative’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday Sept. 28, Booth also sent the agency his sermon regarding the general election. After launching an audit of the church in August 2008, the IRS has now stated in a letter that it is closing its examination of the sermons due to a procedural problem.

“Pastors have a right to speak freely from their pulpits. Something is very wrong in America when free speech is held hostage by bungling bureaucracies,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “This latest action from the IRS continues to leave churches in limbo when it comes to speaking freely from their pulpits. It illustrates everything that is wrong with the current enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. After an 11-month audit, it is disingenuous for the IRS to simply close the file and walk away as if nothing happened.”

Since the addition of the Johnson Amendment to the Federal Tax Code in 1954, the IRS has issued increasingly vague guidance on the law, which limits the First Amendment rights of pastors speaking from the pulpit, but has continued to launch investigations while avoiding court review of the constitutionality of its actions. Groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have taken advantage of the vagueness of the tax law and have reported churches to the IRS in an attempt to remove their tax-exempt status.

“The IRS apparently has no desire to clarify the law for churches and has studiously avoided a court confrontation over this issue for years,” Stanley explained. “They continue to vaguely interpret the law, leave churches guessing as to what the law actually means, and enforce the Johnson Amendment through fear and intimidation.”

ADF attorneys believe the IRS could have continued its investigation of Warroad Community Church and reached a conclusion on the merits of the case, which they argue is the unconstitutionality of the Johnson Amendment.

“Instead of standing and fighting in court, the IRS prefers to run the other way,” said Stanley. “ADF would likely have waived any complaint about procedural concerns involved in the investigation stage of the audit in order to reach the merits of the case and clarify the law. Once a federal court has an opportunity to review the Johnson Amendment, we believe it will not take long for the court to strike it down as unconstitutional. Pastors have the right to preach from their pulpits on all issues, including candidates and elections. No pastor should fear the IRS.”
ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.