WASHINGTON (ABP) — A House committee has scuttled a provision in a trade bill that would have allowed churches to engage in partisan politics.
On June 14, the House Ways and Means Committee unanimously removed an addendum to the “American Jobs Creation Act of 2004” that would have allowed churches and other houses of worship to endorse a political party or candidate up to three times without losing their tax-exempt status.
Currently, churches and other tax-exempt groups organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code are not allowed to engage in partisan politics. However, churches and ministers are allowed to speak for and against legislation and public policy and engage in advocacy and lobbying activities, as long as such activities don't comprise a substantial part of their activity.
Religious Right groups have pushed a proposal by conservative Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) that would have allowed houses of worship and religious charities — but not other 501(c)(3) organizations — to engage in partisan politics while maintaining their tax exemption.
The provision in the jobs bill would not have gone as far as Jones' legislation. It would have levied fines against churches after the second and third violations of the ban on partisan politicking.
The provision was recently slipped into the bill — which deals largely with international trade issues and corporate tax cuts — at the request of the House's Republican leadership. It was included the same week that President Bush's re-election campaign came under fire from church-state separationist groups for a campaign e-mail that was made public. The e-mail sought to identify volunteers for the campaign from 1,600 “friendly congregations” in Pennsylvania, widely considered an important “swing state” in the upcoming presidential election.
However, even many religious leaders that support Jones' legislation opposed the addition to the trade bill. For instance, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission criticized the “three-strike” provision as well as other aspects of the amendment as inviting excessive government monitoring and regulation of religious groups.
In a letter Land sent to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) opposing the provision, Land said it would enable “an unacceptable intrusion of the IRS into the business of a church.”
Meanwhile, supporters of strict church-state separation criticized the stricken provision as blurring the line between church and state.
“You've taken Jesus out of the pulpit and put him in the polling places,” Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), the committee's ranking Democratic member, said to chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) in his opening remarks before the committee “mark-up” of the legislation.
However, it was a Republican — Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut — who ultimately made the motion to strike the church-politicking provision. It passed without any dissent.
The bill will now move to the House floor without the church provision. It is H.R. 4520.
However, the most recent version of Jones' bill remains before the committee for future consideration — and now has 165 co-sponsors. It is H.R. 235, the “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act.”