A bill to allow tax-exempt houses of worship to intervene in partisan political campaigns was strongly rejected today in the House of Representatives.
The final vote was 239-178 against the legislation. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a leading opponent of the legislation, praised the action.
"The House did the right thing by rejecting this reckless scheme," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "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."
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 was aggressively pushed by numerous Religious Right organizations. The measure sought to change federal tax law to allow houses of worship to use their personnel and other resources to endorse or oppose candidates for public office.
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 have lifted that regulation -- but only for houses of worship.
AU's Lynn said that today's vote was the right call.
"Most Americans do not want their churches turned into smoke-filled rooms where political deals are cut and partisan politics replaces worship," Lynn said. "When people put their money in the collection plate, they don't expect it to be used for candidates' campaign literature and attack ads."
Jones and other congressional sponsors had argued that the bill was necessary to protect the right of religious leaders to speak out on moral issues. AU's Lynn called this argument "nonsense."
"Religious leaders are already free to expose moral evils, propose ethical solutions and hold our leaders to the highest standards," Lynn said. "The only thing that tax law prohibits is intervention by tax-exempt groups in political campaigns."
The House rejected the legislation despite intense lobbying efforts by the Religious Right. Some of the movement's largest groups and most prominent leaders endorsed the bill, including the Christian Coalition, the American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and TV preachers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. The Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination closely aligned with the Religious Right, also endorsed the measure.
Religious Right groups were eager to get rid of the federal tax law provision so they could legally use churches as cogs in a political machine.
Nevertheless, religious leaders and organizations from across the theological spectrum 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.
The bill was also opposed by leading civil rights organizations including the NAACP and the National Congress of Black Churches.
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.