Bill would remove electioneering ban
April 4 2002 by Robert Marus , Associated Baptist Press

Bill would remove electioneering ban | Friday, April 5, 2002

Friday, April 5, 2002

Bill would remove electioneering ban

By Robert Marus Associated Baptist Press

WASHINGTON - A longstanding IRS rule that churches and other non-profit organizations that are exempt from paying taxes may not engage in partisan politics, such as endorsing candidates, would be removed from the tax code if a bill pending in Congress becomes law.

A bill now in a U.S. House committee would allow churches to spend as much as 20 percent of their budget on partisan politics without risking loss of their tax-exempt status.

Supporters of the change say the current law infringes churches' right to freedom of speech. Opponents say removing the limits would unnecessarily politicize America's pulpits.

Meanwhile, a new poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly believe clergy should refrain from endorsing political candidates.

House Resolution 2357 is called the "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act." Sponsored by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), it would remove a prohibition - in place since 1954 - that prevents churches and other non-profit groups organized under section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Service code from engaging in partisan politics while maintaining their freedom from being taxed.

"For me, its a First Amendment issue," Jones told the Raleigh News and Observer newspaper. "Prior to 1954, a rabbi, priest, or minister could say anything they wanted to say. This is simply trying to return free speech to churches and synagogues."

Opponents of the bill say current laws don't prevent tax-exempt charities from speaking out on political issues. Churches and ministers can already address social and moral issues - such as opposition to lotteries, gay rights and abortion - as long as they don't endorse candidates.

"This bill isn't about free speech; it's about hardball politics," said Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Pat Robertson and his friends are desperately trying to forge churches into a political machine, and this bill allows them to get away with it."

Currently, if a church endorses a political party or a particular candidate, then it risks losing its tax-exempt status. The only known case of that happening came in 1995, however. That's when the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of The Church at Pierce Creek, near Binghamton, N.Y., as the result of a 1992 newspaper advertisement the church purchased. The ad told voters it was wrong to vote for Bill Clinton for president.

In recent years, the IRS has conducted several investigations into other churches and religious organizations that appeared to endorse candidates or political parties.

The Washington Post quoted Jones as saying conservative churches are most likely to be investigated, producing what he termed a "chilling effect" on their freedom of political speech.

Americans United, however, claims the IRS is enforcing the tax code fairly. "I know of no evidence whatsoever that the IRS has singled out conservative churches for penalties," Lynn said.

Lynn noted that prominent African-American pastor Floyd Flake got into hot water after endorsing Al Gore's presidential campaign from a New York pulpit in 2000.

"IRS agents came to the church for a visit," Lynn said. "To avoid penalties, Flake signed a document promising to follow federal tax law more carefully in the future."

Lynn said the only reason the Pierce Creek congregation lost its tax exemption for electioneering is that the pastor told the IRS that he had used church funds to take out candidate advertisements in the newspaper and he intended to continue to do so. Federal courts later upheld the revocation.

Language of the new bill was drafted by Colby May, a lawyer for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLS). Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson founded the ACLJ.

The coalition recently lost its own battle to maintain its tax-exempt status with the IRS, meaning donations to the group are no longer tax-deductible. In January, Jones appeared on Robertson's "700 Club" television program to promote the bill. Robertson urged viewers to contact House Ways and Means Committee chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and ask him to schedule a hearing for the bill as soon as possible.

Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's (SBC) Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, supports the Jones legislation. "We don't think the government should be telling churches what to do," he told the Raleigh newspaper. "It's for us to decide, not the government."

While he believes churches should have the right to endorse candidates, however, Land added, "We will continue to urge our churches not to do it." Overt partisan politicking is "not an appropriate role for the church," he said.

Former SBC president Ed Young, whose Second Baptist Church of Houston endured its own four-year investigation by the IRS, also endorsed the change in comments reported by the New York Times.

"I just think the religious entities of America need to keep their prophetic voice," Young said. "And you lose that if you send money to politicians or openly support them during an election season."

Jones' bill has 113 co-sponsors in the House - all but four of them are Republicans. Though Jones has said he hopes the proposal will receive a hearing in May, sources say it has not yet been scheduled for any hearing.

The bill comes at a time when a major new poll shows that Americans, by a three-to-one majority, oppose religious groups involving themselves directly in partisan politics.

On March 20, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life announced the results of a poll on the attitudes of Americans toward religion and politics. The poll found that 70 percent of respondents were opposed to clergy endorsing political candidates, while 22 percent supported the idea. In addition, majorities of all of the demographic groups polled opposed the idea - white mainline Protestants, African-American Protestants, Catholics, and those of other faiths or no faith at all. Even white evangelicals - the most supportive group of church endorsements of political candidates - still opposed the idea 61 percent to 31 percent.

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4/4/2002 11:00:00 PM by Robert Marus , Associated Baptist Press | with 0 comments
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