News Articles

Senate bill attacks free speech
of churches, pro-family groups

WASHINGTON (BP)–Senate Democrats and a few Republicans have slipped into a lobbying reform bill a section that would drastically impact the mission and function of churches and nonprofit organizations — such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council — that seek to inform voters on moral issues.

One of the provisions of S. 1 now being considered by the Senate would require churches and other nonprofits, classified as “grassroots lobbying firms,” to report to the House and Senate any time they spend money to communicate to their constituents on public-policy issues that are before Congress. Failure to comply could result in thousands of dollars in fines and even criminal penalties.

“This is one of the most significant violations of free exercise of religion and the freedom of political speech in our nation’s history,” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, wrote in a column posted on the ACLJ website. “Some have said that this plan is the most comprehensive regulation of political speech that has ever been put forward by Congress.”

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council wrote in an e-mail to supporters, “This should be called the ‘Silence the Citizens Act of 2007.’ … Even pastors who would encourage the members of their congregation to call their senators, their congressmen, about marriage, about life issues, could theoretically fall under the provisions of this measure.”

While pro-family groups say much of the bill is good, they are encouraging constituents to contact their senators and ask them to strike Section 220 — the section that could impact churches and church-related groups — from S. 1. Focus on the Family has created a petition on the matter available at focuspetitions.com.

“Protect your right to know,” Focus on the Family’s James Dobson said on his radio broadcast Jan. 10. “Protect our right to tell you what we know.”

Dobson said the objective of the legislation’s supporters is clearly to silence the grassroots groups that led millions of Americans to contact their elected officials and affect the outcome of votes on Supreme Court justices, the partial birth abortion ban, broadcast decency fines and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

Among the actions that would be subject to government tabulation under the proposed legislation are phone calls, personal visits, e-mails, magazines, broadcasts, appearances, travel, fundraising and other activities, Dobson said.

“Any time that we send out a CitzenLink e-mail, or we write an article for Citizen magazine or Dr. Dobson goes on his broadcast and talks about legislation — like he did today — we would have to record and report to the government four times a year,” Amanda Banks, federal policy analyst for Focus on the Family Action, said on the broadcast. “If we did not meet those guidelines, we would be subject to fines of $100,000.”

Carrie Gordon Earll, senior director of issue analysis for Focus on the Family Action, said the proposed legislation would not affect labor unions, corporations, 527 groups or those in Hollywood who express liberal views.

Sekulow, in a post on the ACLJ website Jan. 15, said lobbying reform can be put forward “without impacting the ability of pastors and churches to speak out on the moral issues of the day, which is part of their prophetic responsibilities.”

The ACLJ has launched a nationwide campaign to oppose the legislation, and they’re preparing to take legal action challenging the measure should it become law.

“Our grievance is simple: Congress cannot silence churches and other organizations from grassroots involvement in critical issues of our day,” Sekulow said.

Perkins said any new legislation shouldn’t forfeit the First Amendment rights of citizens to petition their government on issues of importance.

“We don’t oppose legitimate proposals to address unethical actions by members of Congress, congressional staff and lobbyists,” Perkins wrote. “But nothing in those misdeeds provides any justification … for the idea that Congress should regulate the constitutionally protected efforts of groups such as ours to alert citizens regarding legislative developments in Congress. The First Amendment protects our right to ‘petition the government.’ This is the heart of our democracy.”

Sen. Robert Bennett, R.-Utah, has introduced an amendment to S. 1 that would remove the section of the lobbying bill that upsets conservatives.

“The senator realizes that just as it would be unconstitutional to monitor the press because of their contact with their readers, Congress has no business monitoring the motives of citizens who contact Washington to express their views,” Perkins wrote. “I ask you to contact your U.S. senators now and let them know that you oppose the grassroots provisions in S. 1, the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007, and that you support Sen. Bennett’s amendment.”

Concerned Women for America, another conservative organization, said it supports efforts by Congress to reform lobbying practices in light of recent scandals, but it also supports Bennett’s Amendment 20, which would protect grassroots organizations. The amendment is also sponsored by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R.-Ky.

“CWA applauds Senators Bennett and McConnell for respecting the rights of the American people while working to reform lobbying practices,” CWA said in a Jan. 12 news release.

The Capitol switchboard number is (202) 224-3121.

    About the Author

  • Erin Roach