Monday, October 2

Politics in the Pulpit

The "House of Worship Freedom of Speech Restoration Act." That sounds empowering. Allow those poor, innocent churches freedom of speech! This bill, introduced in 2005 by Rep. Walter Jones, would allow churches to endorse political candidates without losing their tax-exempt status.

Well, it's back, this time sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe as the Religious Freedom Act of 2006, described as, "A bill to protect freedom of speech exercisable by houses of worship or mediation and affiliated organizations."

Unfortunately, the Library of Congress doesn't have the full text yet (it was introduced on 9/27/06), but it's S.3957, and in the Senate Finance Committee.

The problem is probably best expressed by this quote on the 2005 bill:

The Rev. Chan Chandler is an enthusiastic supporter of President Bush and wanted to make sure his North Carolina parishioners knew it. If they didn't agree with him -- and at least nine of them fit that category -- they were forced out, some congregants said.

Chandler himself resigned last week, a symbol to his detractors of the dangers of partisan preaching inside a church. But to supporters of a congressional bill that would "take the muzzle off" religious leaders, Chandler should have been free to issue endorsements from the bully pulpit -- if not bully the flock into leaving -- without endangering his Baptist church's tax-exempt status.

It's not just conservative churches that run afoul of the law; a church in California nearly lost its tax-exempt status because the minister gave an anti-war sermon:

The dispute at the 3,500-member Episcopal church centers on a sermon titled "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush," delivered by a guest pastor. Though he did not endorse a candidate, he said Jesus would condemn the Iraq war and Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war.
The United Church of Christ's television ads were also refused on "political" grounds:

“After screening the spot … we must decline as our guidelines state we will not accept religious advertisements that take a position on controversial issues or may be deemed as disparaging to another religion,” according to a company statement on March 31.

Frankly, the law isn't frequently enforced as it is; a google of "church tax-exempt politics" fails to turn up large numbers of oppressed churches.
According to the IRS, the only church ever to be stripped of its tax-exempt status for partisan politicking was the Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., which was penalized in 1995 after running full-page ads against President Clinton in USA Today and The Washington Times in 1992 during election season.
There's also no reason why churches should be held to different standards when other tax-exempt organizations (501(c)(3)) aren't allowed to endorse political candidates, either.

I also wonder how consistently this law would be enforced in the current political climate.

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