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ERLC no longer supporting Houses of Worship bill

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy entity has withdrawn its support for a bill it says no longer protects the free speech rights of churches.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission announced April 25 it would not back the latest version of the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, H.R. 235, because of revisions the ERLC sees as increasing the likelihood of government intervention in churches and other religious bodies.

Unlike previous versions sponsored by Rep. Walter Jones, R.-N.C., the version he introduced in this Congress does not allow political views expressed by religious leaders or members to be distributed beyond those in attendance at the service in which they are made. H.R. 235 also has new language saying such banned dissemination would include a “mailing that results in more than an incremental cost to the organization and any electioneering communication.”

Those changes, in essence, nullify much of the original intention of the bill and potentially open churches up to government intrusion, according to the ERLC.

ERLC President Richard Land called the new version a “grotesquely bad idea.”

“We supported the original Jones bill because, while we believe that churches shouldn’t endorse candidates, we also believe that it should be a church decision, not a government decision,” Land said.

“Under the new bill, the government would permit churches to endorse a candidate but then would allow government investigators to come in and determine when the church has exceeded the government’s narrow parameters of permission,” he said. “It gives the government foxes a hunting license to enter the churches’ hen houses, and we all know what happens when foxes get into hen houses — hens get killed, and foxes get fat.”

As in versions Jones introduced in the last two Congresses, the latest Houses of Worship bill would amend the Internal Revenue Code to prevent the tax-exempt status of churches and other religious organizations from being affected by the “content, preparation or presentation” of sermons or other addresses during religious services or meetings. Under a 1954 congressional measure, churches and other tax-exempt organizations are prohibited from participation in an election campaign or intervention on behalf of any candidate.

With one qualification, the ERLC endorsed the bills Jones sponsored before this session. The entity supported the legislation to prevent the government from defining the church’s mission, but it remained committed to encouraging Baptist churches to refrain from endorsing candidates, Land said.

The latest version’s provisions limiting dissemination of viewpoints and requiring mailings not exceed an “incremental cost” were added to gain the support of Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., according to the ERLC.

“Congressman Jones is to be commended for his perseverance on this issue,” said Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research. “Unfortunately, when the popularity of his free-speech restoration effort was at its highest level ever, he succumbed to the pressure of Senator McCain, who insisted on language that essentially nullifies most of what Congressman Jones originally intended and then potentially makes matters worse for churches that do attempt to exercise their supposed restored free-speech rights.

“It is our hope that Congressman Jones will recognize his error” and reintroduce his original version, Duke said.

The new language would mean political viewpoints by any speaker in a service would have to be edited out of audio and video tapes, as well as taped radio and television broadcasts, Duke said. Live broadcasts would need to be interrupted if such comments were made, he said.

“In addition, the bill does not even allow a third party to disseminate this information,” Duke said. “You have to wonder who is liable if someone does disseminate these opinions beyond the gathered assembly. I suspect that the church itself would have to prove that it had nothing to do with the dissemination, and the government would be the one deciding whether or not the church should be held harmless.”

“Incremental cost” is not defined in the bill, but again the government would determine what it means, Duke said.

“Of course, the government would have to audit the financial records of the church even to do that,” he said. “Such government intrusion in the church is unacceptable.”

The House of Representatives defeated Jones’ first version of the bill in a 239-178 vote in October 2002. No vote was ever taken on his legislation during the next Congress.