- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

As the election season heats up, House Republicans want to bring to the floor this month a bill that would give churches more leeway to engage in political activities and allow political statements from the pulpit while maintaining tax-exempt status.
"I've got a commitment from the leadership that they would try to get this bill to the floor in the latter part of September," said bill sponsor Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., North Carolina Republican, who has been working on the issue for two years.
A House Republican leadership aide confirmed that leaders want to bring it to the floor this month, though the office of Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, could not confirm that information.
"That's one of the legislative items leadership will have to address when they return, bearing in mind a short legislative time frame and a long list of bills," said Armey spokesman Greg Crist.
Under a law enacted in 1954, churches and other tax-exempt organizations are barred from participating in political activities by endorsing or opposing any political candidate or contributing to them, and no substantial part of the churches' activities can involve lobbying on legislation.
Mr. Jones said the law "stifles freedom of speech" by limiting the involvement of pastors, priests and rabbis in political activities, and threatens the moral future of the country.
"Our churches and synagogues are denied their First Amendment rights in this country, at least when it involves political issues," Mr. Jones said. "From the beginning of this country, the churches have been very active, and [the 1954 law] took that away from them."
Mr. Jones said some religious leaders are scared to state from the pulpit a candidate's stance on abortion or related issues.
His bill would change the law and allow a church or other house of worship to participate or intervene in a political campaign and maintain its tax-exempt status as long as the participation is not a substantial part of its activities.
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the bill is "grossly unfair" to other tax-exempt organizations.
"Fundamentally, this gives a special right to churches to engage in partisan activity that no other charity has," Mr. Lynn said.
He also argued that current law does not prevent free speech in churches.
"You can speak out on moral issues; just don't endorse candidates," he said.
Mr. Lynn said the bill not only would allow religious leaders to endorse candidates, but is also "designed to allow a wide variety of funding of campaign activities," including advertising, certain kinds of polling and use of facilities by favored candidates.
Lanier Swann, spokeswoman for Mr. Jones, said that is not the purpose of the bill and called that characterization a "scare tactic." She said that although those activities would be permitted under the bill, it clearly "won't force churches into political machines. Instead, it will give pastors, priests, rabbis and clerics the ability to speak out about what's on their heart without fear of the government swooping down on them."
At a House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing on the bill in May, 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 under the current law, while more liberal churches repeatedly have had Democratic candidates and political leaders visit with no consequences.
"Conservatives feel they have been singled out," Mr. Jones agreed, adding that his bill would ensure they are all treated the same.
The Jones bill has bipartisan support in the House and is backed by a variety of religious leaders. Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, said the bill's crafters "perceptively recognize that this long overdue legislation is important to all religious faiths and all political parties."


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