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Congress weighs free speech protections for churches

WASHINGTON (BP)–In the past 22 years, the Internal Revenue Service has either revoked the tax-exempt status of a church or religious organization or levied taxes on such a group for engaging in “prohibited political activities” fewer than 10 times. But some members of Congress say that is 10 times too many.

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight heard testimony May 14 on two bills designed to protect churches and other religious organizations from the IRS, CNSNews.com reported May 15.

The Bright-Line Act of 2001 would amend the Internal Revenue Code to allow churches to participate or intervene in political campaigns while still maintaining their tax-exempt status, so long as such participation is not a “substantial part” of their activities.

The Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, a more detailed proposal, would deny tax-exempt status to any nonprofit organization if the organization:

— devotes a “substantial part” of its activities and 20 percent or more of its annual gross revenues to influence legislation; or

— spends 5 percent or more of its annual gross revenues to participate or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office, including publishing or distributing statements; or

— Normally spends in excess of 20 percent of its annual gross revenues on a combination of the two activities.

Colby May, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, told the committee it is essential that one of the bills be passed into law.

“If this were 1953, we wouldn’t need this hearing because churches were able to do this without concern or fear that the federal government was going to come and revoke their tax exemption,” May said.

In fact, prior to 1954, churches were deemed to be able to speak out on any issue they desired. What some call the “separation of state from church” mandated by the First Amendment proclamation that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” was considered to be absolute.

Then on July 2, 1954, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D.-Texas, introduced an amendment to a tax code revision that was being considered on the Senate floor.

The amendment, which prohibits all nonprofit groups — including churches — from engaging in political activity without losing their tax-exempt status, passed with no debate. It was later learned that Johnson introduced the amendment in response to two nonprofit, anti-communist organizations opposing his primary re-election bid in Texas.

Despite the origin of the current law, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the committee it must remain in force to avoid “a reckless experiment in mixing religion with partisan politics.”

“Make no mistake. These bills are not about free speech,” Lynn claimed. “Instead they would promote the corruption of the church and the corruption of the political process.”

Lynn’s group also opposes public school graduation prayers, the display of the Ten Commandments on public property, and the teaching of the theory of intelligent design alongside the theory of evolution in public schools.

D. James Kennedy, president of Coral Ridge Ministries, noted the difficulty even tax lawyers, much less religious leaders, have interpreting the current IRS regulations.

“I have talked to many ministers who will not say anything on any social issue or any other issue that might be perceived as being unacceptable,” he told the committee, “because they were afraid that the IRS would come down on them … and that they would experience repercussions because of that.”

Rep. John Lewis, D.-Ga., said he fears that if the bills are passed churches will become a “conduit [for] large contributions” to political candidates and campaigns. A tax law expert subsequently told Lewis that current federal election laws would prohibit tax-exempt money collected for religious purposes from being passed on to political campaigns.

“That is existing law, and there’s no suggestion that it would change,” said Steven Miller, director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service.

Rep. Walter Jones, R.-N.C., chief sponsor of the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, said the greater fear should be the unconstitutional power currently vested in the IRS.

“I firmly believe that threatening the tax-exempt status of those houses of worship whose speech the IRS deems has ‘crossed the line into politics’ has the effect of denying their right to the free exercise of their religious beliefs,” he said.

Jones said religious leaders should not have to fear consequences from the government when speaking out to encourage “the practical political application” of the teachings of their faith.

“That,” he concluded, “is as chilling as it is wrong.”

(The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has endorsed the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act but with somewhat of a qualification. The ERLC believes “while the government should not restrict the activities of the church to define its mission, the church should restrict its own activities consistent with its mission,” ERLC President Richard Land said in a letter endorsing the bill. If the legislation becomes law, the commission “will encourage Baptist churches to speak freely on the issues of the day [as we believe they should already] but to refrain from formally endorsing candidates,” Land said.)
Johnson is the congressional bureau chief with CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Jeff Johnson