WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has endorsed legislation enabling churches to engage in political campaigns but says it will still urge Baptist congregations not to endorse candidates for office.
ERLC President Richard Land announced the agency’s qualified support for the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (H.R. 2357) in a letter to the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Walter Jones, R.-N.C.
The legislation would amend the Internal Revenue Code to lift its total ban on political activities by churches and other tax-exempt organizations. Under its rules for 501(c)(3) groups, the Internal Revenue Service prohibits any activity that encourages a vote for or against a candidate. Jones’ proposal would require any participation by a church or other organization in a political campaign not to be a “substantial part” of its activities.
The purpose of the bill is to protect the right of religious leaders to speak out on issues without feeling threatened by the IRS, said Jones’ press secretary, Patricia Meagher. Jones “didn’t introduce this legislation so churches could endorse candidates,” she said.
The ERLC endorsed the bill “because we believe it provides an appropriate barrier to hinder the government from seeking to define the mission of the church,” Land said in the letter to Jones. 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,” Land said.
“We believe that the church should speak to [current issues] consistent with its own doctrine and teachings,” the ERLC president said. “However, we do not believe it is wise, prudent or appropriate for Baptist churches to endorse candidates.”
If the legislation becomes law, the ERLC “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.
The IRS now has “unbridled discretion” to “target those it wishes to silence or threaten,” Land said. Jones’ bill “will restore the proper balance by providing a ‘substantiality’ test similar to that already applied in the area of legislation or lobbying,” he said.
Tax-exempt organizations are allowed by the IRS to address public-policy issues as long as such activities do not achieve a substantial part of its overall work.
While a range of religious and secular organizations have given their support to the bill, the ERLC is the only one to qualify its backing by saying it will encourage churches not to endorse candidates, Meagher said. Other organizations that have endorsed the measure are the American Center for Law and Justice, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform.
The bill has 85 cosponsors but has yet to be acted upon by the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee. The House leadership has indicated hearings will be held in the spring, Meagher said.
In a September news conference, Jones charged the IRS with turning the 501(c)(3) section “on its head in an attempt to punish pastors, priests and rabbis for nothing more than communicating the principles of their faith during an election period.”
“By lifting the IRS’ absolute ban on political speech, the act will restore their First Amendment rights and allow our churches, synagogues and mosques to participate freely in our democracy, without fear that the government will penalize them for doing so,” Jones said.
Jones joined other critics who have accused the IRS of uneven application of the code, saying the agency has punished one church “while turning a blind eye to another that does the same thing.”
In 1995, a New York church became the first congregation to have its tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS. The Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, N.Y., had paid for a newspaper advertisement during the 1992 presidential campaign warning Christians about voting for Bill Clinton because of his support for abortion and homosexual rights, as well as condom distribution in schools. Conservatives have noted pastors in other churches have endorsed liberal candidates without the congregation’s tax exemption being affected.