Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act

To incite their followers on political issues of the day — from taxation to slavery to abortion — America’s religious leaders have taken to their pulpits as far back as the Revolutionary War.

However, ministers have been barred from preaching about political candidates since 1954 when then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson pushed a little-noticed law through Congress.  From endorsing or opposing candidates, churches are prohibited or risk being stripped of their tax exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under the law.  Frequently flouted is the law although the IRS rarely intervenes.

Starting a campaign to remove the prohibition are religious conservatives.  Last year, U.S. Representative Walter B. Jones Jr. (Republican-North Carolina) made it his signature issue.

Becoming a frequent topic on Christian talk shows on radio and television, this cause has been taken up by more than 12 religious conservative lobbying groups.

Churches and other houses of worship would be permitted to engage in political campaigns by the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (H.R. 2357).

The legislation, H.R. 2357, has gathered 112 co-sponsors, all but four of them Republicans, but it has yet to be scheduled for a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee.  Dick Armey majority leader and Tom Delay the majority whip, both from Texas, are among the supporters.

Fearing that they may be regarded by the IRS as political many churches and pastors do not address moral issues currently affecting America.

In contrast, the measure is little more than a strategy by leaders of the religious right to mobilize conservative churches on behalf of conservative candidates say opponents.

Defending the current law, calling it “a good thing for the church and a good thing for a political system,” is Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Mr. Lynn said, “ If we change it we’re going to see politicians running around seeking support of churches and hoping that they can curry favor with those churches by promising them money and favors.”

Added as an amendment by Senator Johnson to a revenue bill that prohibited all groups with a nonprofit or 501 ( c )3 tax-exempt status from endorsing or opposing candidates,  the law dates to 1954 when the original measure was passed by unanimous consent.

To silence two groups connected to the Hunt family, which opposed his re-election, was the intention of Johnson say historians.  However, the law also applied to houses of worship because they also have the exempt designation.

In an interview Representative Jones said, “Johnson took away the freedom of our preachers, priests, and rabbis.”

Preachers, nevertheless, endorsed politicians from the pulpit with no repercussion as years went by.  However, conservatives and evangelical churches have become increasingly involved in campaigns, drawing more scrutiny by the revenue service in the last 20 years.

Starting to send churches warning about the prohibition on partisan politics and reporting several churches, accusing them of overstepping the law, was a liberal watchdog group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The IRS has been accused by Representative Jones and others on talk shows of biased enforcement, investigating only conservative, predominantly white churches while ignoring liberal, predominantly black churches that routinely invite candidates to appear in their pulpits.

Extremely few churches have been penalized by the IRS, which declined to commit for this article.  For sponsoring a full-page advertisement that opposed Bill Clinton’s Presidential candidacy, the conservative church at Pierce Creek in Conklin, New York, near Binghamton had its tax-exempt status revoked in the case that received the most attention.

Laurie Goodstein, “Churches on Right Seek Right to Back Candidates, “ The New York Times, February 3, 2002)


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