Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Churches could mistakenly engage in political activities up to three times per year and still retain their tax-exempt status, according to a provision that Republicans have included in a corporate-tax bill set for a committee vote on Monday.

Currently, a church cannot engage in political activities that endorse or oppose candidates. If it does, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) can investigate and revoke its tax-exempt status.

The language in the corporate-tax bill — inserted by sponsor Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, and set for a markup Monday in his Ways and Means Committee — would create intermediate penalties for churches who unintentionally violate this law, instead of immediately threatening their tax-exempt status.

A church could have three instances of unintentional violations in one year. The church would have to pay some amount of taxes as a penalty each time and would face losing its tax-exempt status if it commits a fourth such violation.

Some Republicans and conservative groups have contended that the IRS has gone overboard with its power, even telling pastors that they can’t use what the IRS calls political “coded language,” such as the terms “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” even when no person is named.

“The chilling impact that it has is really quite profound,” said Colby May, senior counsel and director of the Washington office of the American Center for Law and Justice. “You have ministers who don’t want to talk about anything that may be an issue in the political context.”

“The idea that now the modern church is expected to remain on the sidelines on the issues of the day … is pretty spooky,” he said.

But the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the language in the bill is a “blatant attempt to recruit churches into partisan politics.”

He said the proposal would give churches a “green light” to endorse candidates, hand out campaign literature and conduct similar political activities, and then claim the activity wasn’t intentional, so they can keep their tax-exempt status.

“This doesn’t pass the laugh test,” he said, noting that it recently was revealed that President Bush’s campaign is planning to recruit friendly congregations into the re-election efforts. This bill would help that effort, he said.

But Mr. May said Mr. Lynn’s group has tried to scare churches into silence by sending out hundreds of thousands of threatening letters each election year, mostly to conservative churches, warning them that the IRS will revoke their tax-exempt status if they do anything political.

Last month, Mr. Lynn’s group lodged a complaint with the IRS against the Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs for sending a letter to its members reminding them the church doesn’t support abortion, homosexual “marriage,” assisted suicide or stem-cell research.

Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United, said although the letter did not name any person or party, it basically tells people to vote Republican.

Americans United also have lodged complaints in recent months against a church in Texas that allowed a Republican fund-raiser in its sanctuary, as well as a Boston church whose pastor endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry from the pulpit, Mr. Boston said.

Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, has been a leader in trying to protect churches from this type of intrusion. He sponsored a bill this year that would go further by banning the IRS from regulating what pastors, rabbis and other clerics can say from their pulpits.

It wasn’t clear whether Mr. Jones would support Mr. Thomas’ proposal when it comes up for a committee vote on Monday or in the expected House vote later next week.

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