JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Several churches in Jacksonville, as well as around the country, are taking a very public stand in the upcoming presidential election, possibly endangering their tax-exempt status.
At the First Conservative Baptist Church on Old St. Augustine Road in Mandarin, they aren't keeping their political views to themselves. Their sign our front says "Pray for our President to be replaced."
There is a Romney for President sign planted in the church yard.
We reached out to the church office and asked if someone would talk to us about the sign, but never heard back.
The Federal tax code includes the Johnson Amendment, pushed through Congress in 1954 by then Senator Lyndon Johnson. The tax code says those exempt from federal income tax, such as churches, cannot "participate in, or intervene in, ( including the publishing or distributing of any statements) any political campaign on behalf of- or in opposition to -any candidate for public office."
First Coast News asked Marshall Gunn, a certified public accountant and former member of the Florida Board of Accountancy, if these signs could lead to loss of these churches tax-exempt status.
"Any time a church makes a statement of that type, yes they do risk it, what you run into is are they using dollars and church resources . A pastor, a minister, a clergyman has the right to express their opinion with first amendment rights, but at the same time if they are using church assets then we are into a whole other situation and that is where you can run into the rub on the Johnson amendment and possibly losing your 501-C3 status."
Gunn said a church sign could possibly have advertising value for a candidate, but that is hard to prove, so just having a sign isn't likely to lead to an IRS investigation, but spending money for political activities would. That could lead to sanctions and monetary penalties for a church.
Gunn said churches may be pushing the issue, seeking a Supreme Court ruling on just what can be said.
John D'Amico, a Catholic who attends a church down the road from the political sign, has no problem with it.
"I would think the church should be able to speak it's beliefs of what they believe, and what they are asking for and praying for, to support the candidates who support what their beliefs are, their faith, regardless of the party or the candidate."
Austin Varner doesn't attend the church either, he supports their right to put up the sign.
"It's your first amendment right to be able to choose what you do and say, so why not act on what you feel," said Varner.
On the first Sunday of this month, a group called Alliance Defending Freedom urged pastors to preach sermons presenting biblical perspectives on the positions of the candidates, despite the Johnson Amendment.
According to its website, several Jacksonville churches participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The list of participants included six churches in Jacksonville, 109 in the state of Florida, and 38 churches in Georgia.
The goal of the group Alliance Defending Freedom is through legal test cases to restore a pastor's right to decide what they preach from the pulpit regarding political candidates, not the IRS.
ADF wants to eventually go to court and have the Johnson Amendment struck down as unconstitutional for its regulation of sermons.
First Coast News