WASHINGTON — On Oct. 19, 1960, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and 52 others were arrested in Rich's Department Store in Atlanta for refusing to leave a table in its restaurant. On Oct. 25, the 52 "sit-ins" were released.
But King was sentenced to four months hard labor for violating probation on a traffic offense and sent to Reidsville State Prison. His pregnant wife, Coretta, was terrified he'd never leave that rural prison alive. Told of the situation, Sen. John F. Kennedy - a candidate for president at the time - placed a call to Mrs. King, and Robert Kennedy telephoned the judge who had ordered King to Reidsville. The next day, King was released on bail.
Relief in the African-American community, especially in the South, was immense. King's father, a renowned Baptist preacher who had come out for Richard Nixon on religious grounds, then endorsed Kennedy. "Because this man was willing to wipe the tears from my daughter's eyes," said King Sr., "I've got a suitcase full of votes, and I'm going to take them to Mr. Kennedy and dump them in his lap."
"Scores of Negro leaders, deeply Protestant but even more deeply impressed by Kennedy's action, followed suit," writes Theodore H. White, chronicler of presidential campaigns. Black pastors told the story from pulpits. Outside their churches, pamphlets describing the episode were distributed in the millions on the Sunday before the election. The shift of the black vote to Kennedy probably decided the election of 1960.
Yet if King told his congregation, as he assuredly did, what the Kennedys had done and what he proposed to do - take a "suitcase full of votes" to the Democratic nominee - his Ebenezer Baptist Church should have, under IRS law, lost its tax exemption. As should have every church in the South whose pastor endorsed Kennedy from the pulpit that Sunday.
That is the absurdity in the IRS tax code that Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina has set about to abolish. Under the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005, the IRS code would be amended to permit priests, pastors, and rabbis to express their "personal views on political matters or elections for public office during regular religious services, so long as these views are not disseminated beyond the members and guests assembled together at the service."
Sunday services at black churches where candidates like Bill Clinton and John Kerry are embraced by preachers and pastors would be legal under US law. But so, too, would sermons from the pulpit by Catholic priests and Christian pastors who told congregations that abortion is the slaughter of the innocent and homosexual marriage is an abomination, and that they should vote for the candidate who will oppose them - be it George Bush or anyone else.
What are we doing muzzling our religious leaders, who, like the prophets of old, have been ordained by God to hold rulers to account?
America was founded by men and women seeking religious freedom. The Bill of Rights begins with a command: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech."
How in such a land can we permit federal agents of the IRS to monitor speech in churches and to punish priests, pastors, or rabbis who speak truth to power by telling their congregations that some men and women are standing up for morality, while others are not? What kind of country have we become, when men and women who take vows to God thereby lose their rights?
The power to tax is the power to destroy. How did the power to destroy churches whose preachers tell their congregations the truth as they see it - that some politicians are advancing God's Kingdom, while others are violating God's commandments - end up in the hands of the IRS? Because Lyndon B. Johnson put it there.
He had not intended to, but in 1954, an election year, then-Senator Johnson was bedeviled by tax-exempt groups who were pointing out the alleged communist connections of some Texas liberals. LBJ had inserted in the IRS code a penalty - loss of tax exemption - for any organization whose leaders endorsed or opposed the election of a politician. His amendment was not intended for churches, but it bound them just the same.
Separation of church and state means churches do not dictate state policy and the state does not dictate church teaching. It doesn't mean rulers have immunity from condemnation or praise.
As Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., argues, Catholic priests have a duty to declare "moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls."
If Congress cannot set free the houses of God, the obstructionists, whoever they are, should get a hiding - from every pulpit in America.
• Patrick J. Buchanan, has been a senior adviser to three presidents, twice a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and the presidential nominee of the Reform Party in 2000. © Creators Syndicate, Inc.