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House keeps IRS threat against churches for political activity

WASHINGTON (BP)–The House of Representatives has turned back legislation that would have permitted churches to engage in political campaigns.

The House voted 239-178 against the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, H.R. 2357. The measure required a two-thirds majority for passage, because the rules had to be suspended to consider the bill.

The legislation would have amended the Internal Revenue Code to lift its total ban on political activities by churches and other houses of worship. 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 similar entity in a political campaign not to be a “substantial part” of its activities.

Ten Democrats joined with 168 Republicans in voting for the bill Oct. 2, while 192 Democrats, 46 Republicans and an independent opposed the measure.

Rep. Walter Jones, R.-N.C., said afterward he would continue to fight for the bill from the first day of the next congressional session.

“This debate was long overdue,” the bill’s chief sponsor said in a written statement. “We must not allow a government institution to have this kind of chilling effect over America’s churches. Congress must return First Amendment rights to our houses of worship.”

The vote elicited strong feelings from both sides of the contentious issue, which is rooted in legislation pushed by former President Lyndon Johnson when he was a senator in 1954. Johnson successfully included in a finance bill the penalty of the loss of tax-exempt status for churches and other groups that took part in political activities.

“Congress was wrong 50 years ago when it empowered the [Internal Revenue Service] to censor sermons, and it was wrong again today,” said Michael Schwartz, Concerned Women for America’s vice president for government relations, said after the vote. “Someone should find out how many of those members who voted against this bill have personally made campaign appearances in churches. The hypocrisy factor is one that should not be ignored.”

Ralph Neas, president of People of the American Way, called the vote a “victory for fairness and common sense and a defeat for the religious right and its political allies. This bill was pushed to the floor in a cynical effort to give right-wing groups a campaign issue for the fall. But today’s bipartisan defeat makes it clear that this bill was a bad idea for churches and for politics.”

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission supported the bill but said it would still advise Baptist churches not to endorse candidates for office.

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 to Jones. “We believe that the church should speak to [current issues] consistent with its own doctrine and teachings. However, we do not believe it is wise, prudent or appropriate for Baptist churches to endorse candidates.”

The IRS now has “unbridled discretion” to “target those it wishes to silence or threaten,” Land said.

Jones’ purpose in championing the bill was to protect the right of religious leaders to speak out on issues without feeling threatened by the IRS, not to empower churches to endorse candidates, a staff member told Baptist Press.

Tax-exempt organizations are allowed by the IRS to address public-policy issues as long as such activities do not comprise a substantial part of their overall work.

Other organizations that endorsed the measure were the American Center for Law and Justice, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform.

Opponents of the bill included the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Anti-defamation League and Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest homosexual rights organization.

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.