- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2002

House Republicans want to move legislation that would give churches more leeway to engage in political activities and make political statements from the pulpit while maintaining tax-exempt status.
The House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee held a hearing on two measures that would alter tax law to increase the amount of political activity churches can engage in.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, endorsed the idea yesterday as something he would like the House to take up this year. Mr. Armey has co-sponsored one of the bills, introduced by Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., North Carolina Republican. Mr. Jones said he is working with senators on the issue as well.
Under a law enacted in 1954, churches and other tax-exempt organizations are barred from participating in political campaigns by endorsing or opposing any political candidate or contributing to them. And no substantial part of the churches' activities can involve lobbying on legislation.
D. James Kennedy, senior minister of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., told the panel that "free speech seems to be protected everywhere except in the pulpits of churches and other houses of worship."
Colby M. May, director of the Washington office of the American Center for Law and Justice, said conservative churches have faced punishment from the Internal Revenue Service, while more liberal churches have repeatedly hosted Democratic candidates and political leaders with no consequences.
"The IRS uses its authority selectively to target only those it wishes to silence or threaten," Mr. May said. He cited the case of an evangelical church in upstate New York that had its tax-exempt status revoked after it ran a newspaper ad in 1992, urging people to vote against Gov. Bill Clinton for his positions on abortion and homosexuality.
Mr. Kennedy said current law is vague and unfair, resulting in confusion and fear among clergy.
As a result, he has talked to many pastors who "would not say anything on any moral issue because they were afraid the IRS would come after them. It's time to get rid of this inequitable, ambiguous and unfair law."
An IRS official testified about the law's impact.
"Nothing prevents clergy from speaking on the issues of the day," said Steven T. Miller, director of the Exempt Organizations division of the IRS. "It is when they tie those issues to a particular election or campaign that it even becomes an issue."
Mr. Jones' bill would change the law and permit a church to participate or intervene in a political campaign and maintain its tax-exempt status as long as such participation is not a substantial part of its activities.
The second bill introduced by Rep. Phillip M. Crane, Illinois Republican is more specific, drawing a "bright line" by allowing a church to use only 20 percent of its revenue for lobbying expenditures and as much as 5 percent of its expenditures for political campaign activities, including the publishing or distributing of statements.
Critics say the bills would give churches rights other organizations do not possess and would create a loophole in the new campaign finance law.
"To undo the restriction on church electioneering creates a loophole that would allow contributors to make tax-exempt contributions to a church with knowledge that the money would benefit a favored candidate," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Michael Schwartz, vice president for government relations at Concerned Women for America, disagreed.
"Labor unions endorse candidates. Newspapers endorse candidates. The idea that we would punish a church for doing the same thing is absurd and tyrannical," he said.


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