- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. says his bill to eliminate a 48-year-old ban on political endorsements from the pulpit is an issue of free speech.
But opposition to the action from the North Carolina Republican which also has the endorsement of 114, mostly Republican House members has come from liberal groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and American Atheists.
Next week, the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act will be taken up by a House Ways and Means subcommittee, a bill that Mr. Jones and other religious conservatives believe will allow churches with a more conservative ideology to enjoy the same freedom to espouse those views that those on the left do.
To maintain tax-exempt status, churches currently must refrain from supporting or opposing political candidates.
"To me, this is nothing more than a First Amendment issue," Mr. Jones said this week. "Churches and synagogues have a moral and spiritual responsibility to make sure that those in elected office follow the Bible and the Constitution."
The four-term congressman said the code that is supposed to ban all pulpit politicking is "selectively enforced" by the Internal Revenue Service, giving breaks to more liberal groups that flaunt the prohibition against pulpit politics.
The bill, with its simple goal to "permit churches and other houses of worship to engage in political campaigns," is supported by over a dozen religious groups.
Tuesday's hearing is the first time the issue has been discussed since 1954, when Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, Texas Democrat, successfully attached a clause to a revenue finance bill that prohibited all groups with a nonprofit, tax-exempt status from endorsing or opposing candidates.
However, liberal groups opposed to Mr. Jones' bill are convinced that the action is a conservative campaign to bring religion into the political process. They believe that the bill is unconstitutional.
"Our biggest problem with the bill is that it would give churches, Christian churches, an exemption that secular charities do not have," said Ron Barrier, a spokesman for American Atheists. "And these are mostly conservative churches that already have their own television networks and companies and plenty of money."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the bill "is clearly unconstitutional. There is no guarantee that every church can participate equally in the promotion of candidates. This is geared to churches and not to other charities, so there is an equal protection argument as well."
Conservatives have previously criticized the IRS for a perceived uneven enforcement of the statute regarding politics and the church. In the most famous case, the Church at Pierce Creek in Conklin, N.Y., near Binghamton, had its tax-exempt status revoked for sponsoring a full-page advertisement that opposed Bill Clinton's presidential candidacy in 1992.
Other cases involving religious groups advocating for a liberal candidate, though, have gone unpunished.
In February 2000, preacher and former Democratic Congressman Floyd Flake invited presidential candidate Al Gore to speak at his Allen A.M.E. Church in Queens, N.Y.
While introducing Mr. Gore to his congregation, Mr. Flake said he did not do political endorsements from the pulpit "because I never know who's out there watching the types of laws that govern separation of church and state. But I will say to you this morning, and you read it well: This should be the next president of the United States."
Mr. Floyd received a caution from the IRS.

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