Religious groups divided over bills to allow pulpit politicking
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON Religious groups are divided over legislation pushed by House Republicans to allow them to be more politically active without imperiling their tax-exempt status.
Supporters of the bills include conservative groups like the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, Americans for Tax Reform and the Association of Christian Schools International. On the other side are many Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists.
The measures, H.R. 2357 and H.R. 2931, would lift the Internal Revenue Service's effective ban on political activity at America's churches, synagogues and mosques. Both measures are aimed at allowing religious leaders the right to free political speech, giving them the ability to endorse candidates who agree with their moral teachings.
"The appropriate level, if any, of political speech should be decided by the church and its parishioners, not the Internal Revenue Service," Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., told the House Ways and Means Committee oversight panel yesterday.
The prohibition on political activity was imposed in 1954 by Congress on all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations under an amendment offered by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas. Before that, religious leaders were freely involved in political debate.
Religious groups and the government have locked horns frequently over the years when it comes to politics and the Constitution's guarantees of both free speech and freedom of religion. After a decade-long battle, for example, the IRS concluded in 1999 that the Christian Coalition should not be tax-exempt because of its distribution of voter guides in churches.
Yet examples abound of politicians appearing before congregations in none-too-subtle endorsements by religious leaders. The law now allows tax-exempt religious groups to sponsor debates, conduct voter registration drives and speak out and lobby on issues.
Steven Miller, director of the IRS exempt organizations division, said religious groups cross a legal line when they take a position on politicians or political initiatives. In the past 25 years, he said, only two churches and five religious organizations have lost their tax-exempt status over political issues. Proponents say that could be because of the law's current muzzling effect.
"I think you would have another player in the political arena" if the legislation were to pass, Miller said.
To opponents, this would open up houses of worship to partisan politics and could make religious groups a new conduit for political contributions.
"The church must speak to worldly issues from the deep places of faith, but must not lend the voice of faith to temporal interests," said Brenda Girton-Mitchell of the National Council of Churches.
The bills, sponsored by Jones and Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., may get no farther than yesterday's subcommittee hearing in this session of Congress. Still, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said he would "probably" schedule a floor vote if it is approved by the Ways and Means Committee.
"I think it is part of the American expectation of how we respect the church in America," Armey told reporters.
Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., said lawmakers need to take a long look at the issue.
"The key issue is the right balance, and how does that balance measure with the Constitution?" Houghton said.
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