- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Republican lawmakers yesterday vowed to pass a law reversing an Internal Revenue Service ban on tax-exempt churches' involvement in election politics, which Lyndon Johnson pushed through Congress in 1954 to keep his Democratic Senate seat in Texas.
Since 1954, the IRS has barred 501(c)(3), or nonprofit, groups from participating in "any political campaign on behalf of any candidate." Before then, historians say, clergy were free to say almost anything during a political season.
In recent years, lawmakers said, churches who take conservative stands on abortion, pornography or homosexuality have been threatened by IRS investigation, while top Democrats frequently use black churches to support their election campaigns.
"Our tax code inappropriately suppresses religious commentary on political issues," said Rep. Tom Delay, Texas Republican and House majority whip.
He said a law reversing the Johnson amendment is a "common sense" solution.
The proposed legislation, which was introduced in July and now has 56 House sponsors, seeks to amend the 1986 IRS code "to permit churches and other houses of worship to engage in political campaigns."
In 1954, then-Sen. Johnson pushed through the amendment four months before Election Day in hopes of crippling two nonprofit anti-communist groups allied with conservative Democrat rivals in Texas.
"Johnson's amendment was accepted under unanimous consent and was never debated on the floor of the Senate," Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., North Carolina Republican and sponsor of the bill, said at a news conference yesterday.
"Since that time, the IRS has turned the 501(c)(3) code-section on its head in an attempt to punish pastors, priests and rabbis for nothing more than communicating the principles of their faith during an election period," Mr. Jones said.
The amended language to the IRS code would not allow ministers or churches to become full-blown political advocacy groups while remaining tax exempt, but it would allow them to address politics if it is not a "substantial" part of the group's mission.
In recent years, the IRS has revoked the tax-exempt status of the Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, N.Y., based on a set of 1992 newspaper ads that said presidential candidate Bill Clinton was "in rebellion of God's law" with his pro-choice stance.
Meanwhile, some Democratic candidates have made visits to black churches central to their election strategy.
President Clinton appeared at a Baltimore church with the assembled state Democratic leadership on the eve of Election Day 1996, and appeared at a black church in Alexandria last Election Day eve to give a boost to Vice President Al Gore.
Over the years, pro-choice groups have unsuccessfully sued to strip the Catholic Church of tax exemption because of its pro-life advocacy, which many priests continue in sermons or diocesan newspapers.
Religious conservatives such as Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition have used voter guides in elections to sharply contrast Democrats and "pro-family" Republicans, a method liberals attack as a violation of IRS rules.
Last November, Americans United for Separation of Church and State mailed warnings to 285,000 clergy that they could lose tax exemption if voter guides entered the church.
The Interfaith Alliance, started with Democratic funds, warned likewise.
The Republican lawmakers yesterday condemned such "intimidation" and said all religious groups should have freedom of speech.
"Let's treat all churches fairly and equally," Mr. Jones said. "This is an issue that is not inherently Democratic or Republican."


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