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
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
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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