U.S. Rep. John Lewis worked beside Dr. Martin Luther King during the 1960s and knows that while King used lots of tactics to secure civil rights, there was one thing he didn't do: endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit.
Thus, the Georgia Democrat was irked to hear supporters of a bill that would allow pulpit electioneering invoke King's name in arguing for the legislation. On Oct. 1, he decided to set the record straight.
" As someone who stood alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other great leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, I can tell my colleagues that they would be dismayed by this legislation," Lewis told his fellow members of Congress. "During the civil rights movement, we fought to end legal segregation and break down barriers to political participation. The church was the heart and soul of our efforts because ministers had the moral authority and respect to stand against immoral and indefensible laws, bad laws, bad customs, bad tradition."
Continued Lewis, "Ministers who led the civil rights movement did not select political candidates and operate our churches like political action committees. Although their churches and leaders faced violence and hatred for their efforts to protect human rights and human dignity, they were free and even protected by the Constitution to speak out on these issues. At no time did we envision or even contemplate the need for our houses of worship to become partisan pulpits."
Lewis' comments came during a late-night debate over Rep. Walter B. Jones' "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357), legislation that would have altered the federal tax law barring houses of worship from endorsing candidates for public office.
Backed by an array of Religious Right groups, the Jones bill received a vote on the House floor Oct. 2 as part of a political compromise. Jones, realizing that the bill was unlikely to emerge from the House Ways and Means Committee's Sub\xaccommittee on Oversight, agreed to allow the vote to occur on the "suspension calendar." Under those rules, the bill would have had to receive the support of two-thirds of the members to pass.
The measure fell far short of that; in fact, it didn't garner a simple majority. When the votes were tallied, the bill had failed 239-178.
Forty-five Republicans joined 193 Democrats (and one independent) in opposing the Jones measure. (See the full vote on page 11.) After the bill's defeat, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn issued a statement hailing the outcome.
" The House did the right thing by rejecting this reckless scheme," said Lynn. "This bill may have been the Religious Right's dream, but it was a nightmare for anyone concerned with the integrity of houses of worship and the political process."
Continued Lynn, "Most Americans do not want their churches turned into smoke-filled rooms where political deals are cut and partisan politics replaces worship. When people put their money in the collection plate, they don't expect it to be used for candidates' campaign literature and attack ads."
The House's action capped a long-running and often bitter debate over the proper role of religion in politics. The Jones bill, drafted by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, was a direct response to efforts by Americans United to educate houses of worship about federal tax law and its provisions barring endorsements of candidates.
The North Carolina Republican was angered by an October 2000 mailing Americans United sent to houses of worship all over the nation, advising them that endorsements of candidates or distribution of biased "voter guides" that endorse candidates are unlawful.
In response, Jones sought to remove the provision barring such activity from the Internal Revenue Service Code. Current law states that all non-profit organizations holding a tax-exempt 501\xa9(3) status must refrain from meddling in partisan politics. Jones' bill would have removed that provision but only for houses of worship. All other non-profit groups would have been required to continue abiding by the regulation.
Jones had hoped to rally the religious community to his cause, but that never happened. In fact, most religious leaders have no interest in turning their churches into centers of partisan politicking. They not only didn't support the measure, many actively op-posed it.
That left Jones with one source for support: the Reli\xacgious Right. A variety of Reli\xacgious Right organizations en\xacdorsed the bill and tried to drum up grassroots support for it among them television preach\xacer D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, David Barton's Wall\xacBuilders and a host of lesser-known groups.
Religious Right leaders had high hopes for the bill. Interviewing Jones on a nationwide television broadcast Sept. 13, TV preacher Jerry Falwell asserted, "If this bill goes through, Congressman...it is going to guarantee one day pro-life judges on the Supreme Court, pro-family members of Congress. It's going to make it very difficult for someone like Bill and Hillary Clinton to ever get in the White House again."
Jones replied, "Absolutely," and Falwell responded, "I'm just talking frankly here."
But in the end, the only religious denomination to back the bill was the Southern Baptist Convention, a group aligned with the Religious Right. Even then, many individual Baptists opposed the measure, and the Southern Baptist leadership in Texas issued a statement critical of the Jones bill.
Moderate Republicans in the House also made their opposition known. The day before the vote, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut joined forces with a Democratic colleague, Martin T. Meehan of Massachusetts, to issue a "Dear Colleague" letter urging defeat of the measure.
Shays and Meehan, who have championed campaign-finance reform efforts in the House, noted that the Jones bill could lead to houses of worship funneling money to political campaigns. This, they asserted, would block efforts to rid unregulated "soft money" expenditures by outside groups.
The Federal Election Com\xacmission, Shays and Meehan noted, has already ruled that tax-exempt groups are not bound by the new campaign-finance laws. Thus, the two warned, "H.R. 2357 poses a threat of opening a new soft-money loophole. Among other things, if the FEC ruling stands and H.R. 2357 becomes law, even incorporated religious organizations could spend unregulated soft money on television and radio sham 'issue ads' attacking or promoting candidates. As a result, if H.R. 2357 is enacted, big dollar political donors could funnel soft-money contributions to fund sham 'issue ads' through partisan, incorporated religious organizations."
Jones denied that his bill was intended to skirt campaign-finance laws and insisted that the measure was merely designed to protect the free speech rights of houses of worship.
He returned to that argument on the floor of the House, telling his colleagues, "[T]he churches in many places, in my opinion, the priests, the rabbis and the clerics, have not had the freedom to speak about the moral and political issues of the day. And many times the moral issues become political issues, and the political issues moral issues, and we all know that."
Other members refuted that claim.
Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) remarked, "Contrary to assertions, churches and other houses of worship can and do speak out on issues of the day.... [I]t is true they cannot take out a paid political ad paid for with tax-deductible money. But under current law, churches can host candidate forums, can issue unbiased voting guides, engage in lobbying activities on legislation, endorse or oppose referendums, constitutional amendments or other ballot initiatives, and they can certainly speak out on the moral issues of the day, whether it be civil rights, universal health care or education.
" Furthermore," continued Scott, "ministers or religious leaders in their private capacity can and do endorse political candidates and even become candidates themselves. In fact, my representative in the Virginia Senate is a pastor of a Baptist church. The difference is they cannot use the resources of a tax-exempt church in a partisan political campaign."
Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) pointed out that tax exemption is a benefit and that government has the right to put conditions on that benefit.
" For that, there are no political campaign activities," Houghton said. "And today churches are free to talk about the issues in any way they want, but they cannot use the church resources on a tax-deductible basis to campaign for a candidate. I think that makes perfectly good sense. They can do what they want, but they should not use the tax code the way no one else can use the tax code for this political purpose."
(A week before the vote, Houghton issued a letter to fellow members of Congress, listing objections to the bill raised by various religious and secular groups, including Americans United, and urging a no vote.)
Other members of Congress raised concerns over protecting the integrity of churches.
" From the time I was a small child, my parents taught me that our church was a sacred house of worship, a spiritual place where people of faith could meet, honor God and thank him for our many blessings," said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas). "Now as a father, it is my hope that my two young sons will have the same sense of reverence for our church and all houses of worship. Based on those values, it is my opinion that this bill demeans religion and demeans houses of worship by converting them into political campaign organizations.
" According to the bill itself, its purpose is 'to permit churches and other houses of worship to engage in political campaigns,'" Edwards went on. "This bill would go so far as to even allow churches to endorse political candidates and to contribute church funds to political campaigns. If I had a malicious intent to import divisiveness into our churches, I could find no better way to do it than to pass this ill-conceived bill into law. That is why this is not just a bad bill, it is a dangerous bill."
Others saw a partisan political intent behind the Jones proposal.
" This bill is an assault on the Constitution's fundamental separation between church and state," asserted Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.). "It was crafted with the single purpose of giving right-wing religious groups like the Christian Coalition a special advantage in the political process. It would allow them to promote their narrow political agenda while exploiting the tax-exempt status traditionally reserved for non-partisan religious and charitable organizations."
The Jones bill also came under fire in the media. In North Carolina, the Raleigh News & Observer, the dominant newspaper in Jones' area, called the measure "a blatant attempt to serve the cause of the politically active religious right."
Observed the newspaper, "Were tax-exempt churches allowed, for example, to make political contributions or endorse candidates, the process could be overrun by pseudo-congregations organized solely to use their tax-exempt status to fund campaigns and elect candidates."
Undaunted by the defeat, Jones and his supporters in the Religious Right organizations are already gearing up to try again. Shortly after the vote, Jones issued a statement vowing to reintroduce the bill next year.
" From the first day of the 108th Congress, I will continue this fight because I believe this battle can be won and will be won," Jones said. "Congress must return First Amend\xacment rights to our houses of worship."
He framed his quest as a religious crusade, telling a Focus on the Family e-mail newsletter, "We're going to continue this fight starting January 1 of 2003; we'll put a bill in. The Lord has given me this energy; the Lord has selected me to be his foot soldier."
Falwell also tried to look on the bright side. In a "Falwell Confidential" e-mail dispatch dated Oct. 3, Falwell launched into a lengthy attack against AU's Lynn, questioning his ministerial credentials and asserting that Americans United is "dedicated to throwing God out of America's public square and converting the U.S. from 'one nation under God' into a secular and Godless nation."
Falwell insisted that pastors can endorse candidates and distribute voter guides.
Reflecting on the defeat of the Jones bill, the Lynchburg televangelist wrote, "While the bill failed, 178 votes is a great beginning toward the ultimate passage of this important religious freedom bill."
AU's Lynn had a different interpretation of events.
" Jones and the Religious Right failed utterly," he said. "Their plan was to politicize America's pulpits, but a wide majority of Congress including many conservatives rejected the overture."
Concluded Lynn, "This misguided bill may well resurface next year. And if it does, Americans United will be there to lead the opposition once again."