Does US law mute voices of churches?

Religion is striking a high profile in the 2004 campaign. But there are those eager to see it take on a much larger role - both now and in the future.

More than 130 members of the US House of Representatives want to amend the law that prohibits partisan activity - such as political rallies, fundraisers, distribution of political literature, and direct endorsements from the pulpit - by pastors and houses of worship. They hope to do this by inserting a provision into a bill that is already before a House-Senate conference committee - thus avoiding public debate or votes in either body.

Supporters say the provision is needed to restore free speech to religious leaders. Barring political endorsements from the pulpit curtails the First Amendment rights of pastors, they say.

But opponents argue that it would turn houses of worship into campaign vehicles and possibly reshape the America's religious and political landscapes in harmful ways. They worry that political endorsements could divide churches, lead to reconfiguring memberships along political lines, adulterate their spiritual purpose and prophetic role as societal consciences, and even perhaps turn their coffers into unregulated channels for campaign financing.

"Nothing is more important than our spiritual leaders having the right to name candidates who stand for protecting morality," says Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina, the bill's sponsor. The legislation would permit political speech or "presentations" during services or other church-sponsored gatherings.

But the existing rules have kept religious groups "from being pressured or ensnared into partisan political activity," counters Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The AU criticizes the Bush-Cheney campaign for seeking to obtain church membership rosters for use in this year's campaign.

"Imagine having a church meeting in which people try to decide which candidate to endorse," says the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance. "Clergy are responsible to interpret aspects of our lives from the perspective of scriptures, but that's different from bestowing divine blessing on a candidate."

The Jones bill is named the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, but some legal experts say it has nothing to do with the First Amendment.

"Free speech is a completely bogus argument," says Robert Tuttle, professor at George Washington University Law School. "The government isn't telling religious leaders they can't talk about anything they want to; it says if you choose to engage in political activity, you are going to be treated under a certain set of rules."

Under current rules, clergy may discuss any issues of public concern during sermons, and houses of worship can engage in civic education and voter-registration activities that are nonpartisan. Clergy may even endorse candidates as individuals. But religious organizations and leaders - as their representatives - may not engage in any partisan political activity.

The ban on electioneering comes from a provision in the Internal Revenue Service code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Such 501(c)(3) groups pay no income tax and can receive tax-deductible contributions.

"The best way to look at this is as a campaign finance regulation that says people can enjoy a tax deduction for charitable contributions to churches and hospitals but not to political campaigns," says Dr. Tuttle.

A church in Vestal, N.Y., for example, lost its tax-exempt status when it published an anti-Clinton ad in a national newspaper. In 1993, the Rev. Jerry Falwell had to pay $50,000 in back taxes for diverting charitable contributions into support for congressional candidates. A Baptist church in Tampa, Fla, recently received a letter of inquiry from the IRS about a planned activity in support of a Democratic candidate.

But this weekend, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty contacted 300,000 churches offering free legal advice to any religious body "threatened by the IRS."

The reality is the IRS seldom takes steps to enforce the code, and Mr. Falwell wrote to churches this year telling them not to worry about the rules.

That hasn't kept the issue from heating up. Representative Jones charges that Mr. Lynn sent volunteers to "monitor and stifle conservative churches across this country."

Lynn says, "I have never recommended that anybody go to a church to scrutinize what the pastors are saying. Some AU chapters have visited to see if campaign literature was passed out the Sunday before the vote."

AU does send letters to churches highlighting the do's and don'ts of IRS rules. When violations come to its attention, AU raises complaints to the IRS. It has initiated 55 complaints since 1991.

A group in Johnson County, Kan., however, sparked an uproar in July by sending volunteers to check on local clergy. The Mainstream Coalition - a group active in public education - took the step when a local preacher organized other clergy to defeat candidates who voted against a state amendment banning same-sex marriage.

"We sent a letter to every church in the county encouraging civic education, but saying we might make a random visit to see if rules were being violated," says Caroline McKnight, executive director. "It hit the AP wire, and I've been fielding hate mail from Christians across America ever since."

Their action, which did not continue past July, spurred a countermovement on the right. William Murray of the Religious Freedom Action Coalition created Big Brother Church Watch to monitor liberal churches for political activity. His website recruits volunteers from across the US.

Yet, Mr. Murray says, "I don't think it's any more proper for us to be threatening churches than Barry Lynn. If [the Jones bill] passes, it wouldn't be an issue."

Others, however, say passage of the bill would raise more serious issues.

"People on both sides of the [congressional] aisle would like this because it opens to them a new vehicle for campaign finance," says Tuttle. While some of the bill's language says it wouldn't affect campaign finance, Tuttle says other language is less clear. And a previous version of the bill explicitly promoted campaign contributions.

Churches might end up under stricter scrutiny, says Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "What would it mean for a church to suddenly begin to fall under the regulatory regime of the Federal Election Commission?" he asks.

"At the heart of this is not just the status of the group but how they handle money," he adds. "Will their books be open to the FEC? What about reporting requirements, fines, corruption, criminality?"

The emotional issue calls for a public conversation, says McKnight. "The rules have been in place six decades, and for some reason it's a big thing this year," she says. "It's time for us to talk.

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