Sep 26, 2002

Legislation that would allow tax-exempt houses of worship to intervene in partisan political campaigns will receive a floor vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, Oct. 1, according to Capitol Hill sources.

Rep. Walter B. Jones' "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357) was drafted by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice and is being aggressively pushed by numerous Religious Right organizations. The measure would change federal tax law to allow houses of worship to use their personnel and other resources to endorse or oppose candidates for public office.

"The church politicking bill would wreak havoc on the integrity of houses of worship, campaign finance laws and the political process," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a leading opponent of the bill. "When people put money in the collection plate, they don't expect it to be used for candidates' bumper stickers and attack ads."

Lynn urged Americans concerned about this bill to contact their representatives in the House.

"This country doesn't need partisan pulpits," Lynn said. "To protect the integrity of our houses of worship and the political process, this legislation must be defeated."

Federal tax law currently prohibits non-profit groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in partisan campaigns if they are tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. H.R. 2357 would lift that regulation -- but only for houses of worship. Religious Right groups are eager to get rid of the provision so they can draft churches as cogs in their political machines.

The bill's sponsors have argued that the bill is necessary to protect religious leaders' ability to speak out on issues. AU's Lynn said this argument is "nonsense."

"Religious leaders are already free to expose moral evils, propose ethical solutions and hold our leaders to the highest standards," Lynn said. "Despite the misinformation spread by supporters of the bill, the only thing tax law prohibits is intervention by tax-exempt groups in political campaigns."

Survey data shows that Americans are opposed to this legislation. A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 70 percent of the respondents said they disapprove of churches endorsing political candidates.

Religious leaders and organizations across the theological spectrum have announced opposition to H.R. 2357. They include the American Jewish Committee; the American Jewish Congress; the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; the Central Conference of American Rabbis; the Church of the Brethren Washington Office; the Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers); the General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church; the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA; the Presbyterian Church (USA), Washington Office; Seventh-day Adventist Church, General Conference; Soka Gakkai International -- USA Buddhist Association; Union of American Hebrew Congregations; the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.