Political Speech and the Churches

The so-called “Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act” (H.R. 2357) has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. It would allow religious groups to use up to 20% of their budgets for partisan political activities.

The bill was drafted by Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice. It’s also supported by other leaders of the Religious Right, including Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, James Dobson, and Tim LaHaye. It quickly attracted 116 cosponsors in the House.

But most religious organizations have come out against the bill. Among them are the National Council of Churches, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Islamic Supreme Council of America, and Soka Gakkai International (a Buddhist association).

Those groups recognize that the Religious Right is using distortions and scare-tactics to promote the bill. They also realize the bill’s enactment would harm both religion and government.

The Religious Right claims that passage of the bill is necessary to allow churches the right to speak on moral, social, and political issues without fear of losing their tax exemption. The hyperbolic Kennedy is touting the bill with fliers depicting ministers as gagged and the IRS as shuttering their churches.

But under the current law, churches are free to speak on moral, social, and political issues. Anyone who watches television or reads newspapers knows they often do. And the example of Martin Luther King Jr. shows that addressing these issues with moral suasion can be more effective than political power-brokering.

What the law forbids churches from doing is endorsing or opposing candidates, and using church resources for political purposes. Churches are given tax-exempt status because they are expected to do charitable work, not engage in partisan politicking.

If a church wants to endorse candidates or otherwise become involved in partisan politics, it’s free to do so. All it has to do is give up its tax exemption and form a political committee, the same as other organizations. (A few religious groups have gone this route.)

Also under the present law, ministers and church members can participate in partisan politics. They simply have to do so in their individual capacities, and not by representing a church or using church property or auspices.

And churches may perform neutral civic functions in connection with partisan political campaigns. These include sponsoring debates between candidates, conducting voter registration drives, and arranging rides to the polls for voters.

The Religious Right complains that the current law has been enforced arbitrarily against conservative churches. But in 1988, when presidential candidate Jesse Jackson announced he would raise campaign funds in churches during Sunday services, he was forced to abandon the idea after objections were raised that he would be violating federal law.

And in 2000, the IRS visited a minister in New York City after receiving complaints that he had endorsed Al Gore from the pulpit. The agency reminded him of the law and asked that he sign a statement promising to abide by it. He signed.

It’s true that a church lost its tax-exempt status after running a full-page newspaper ad against Bill Clinton in 1992. The ad proclaimed that voting for Clinton was a “sin.” The purpose of this flagrant violation was probably to test whether the IRS would enforce the law against churches. The agency did. And the church lost its appeal in court.

The reason for the different IRS actions in these cases is that the agency has a policy of not immediately yanking a church’s tax-exempt status after learning of the church’s involvement in partisan politics. Instead, the agency’s approach is to point out the law to the church and ask for compliance in the future.

In the case of the ad against Bill Clinton, the church’s minister defied the IRS and wouldn’t agree to discontinue the partisan politicking. There’s no reason to think that if a liberal church had acted so contemptuously toward the law, the agency would not have taken the same steps to revoke the church’s tax exemption.

In fact, every year numerous secular nonprofit organizations lose tax-exemptions for engaging in partisan politics. The IRS is apparently going easier on churches than on other tax-exempt organizations committing similar violations.

Nevertheless, the Religious Right’s bill permits only religious groups, and not other tax-exempt organizations, to engage in partisan politics. This belies their claims about wanting equal enforcement of the law. And it could be a fatal flaw in the bill, because the Constitution prohibits government from granting special privileges to religion.

If the bill is enacted, politically active churches would become conduits for campaign contributions. The money would be sent to churches to take advantage of their tax-exempt status, and the churches would then pass the funds along to support candidates.

Such schemes are attractive to leaders of the Religious Right, who despise church-state separation and seem more interested in politics than religion. But because churches don’t have a duty to disclose contributions the way PACs and candidates do, this practice would wreak havoc on the campaign finance laws.

Moreover, the need to decide political matters could divide and weaken congregations. They would have to determine whether their church should become involved in politics. If a decision is made to do so, they would then have to choose which candidates and parties to endorse, how much support to provide, and what form it should take.

Most church members were brought together because of agreement on religious or philosophical views, not political ideology. As a result, a church’s membership normally consists of persons from a variety of political parties and philosophies. The need to make decisions on political issues would splinter some churches.

Religious involvement in politics could also set the churches against each other and against other segments of society. It’s chilling to envision people running for office as Baptist-backed candidates, Catholic-backed candidates, etc. Similar religious divisions have torn societies apart in disputes over whose religion would govern the country.

Some ministers oppose the bill because they think the time and energy spent on political matters would detract attention from the true purposes of religion. They see this as a violation of Christ’s commandment to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

Additionally, political campaigns are often vicious, win-at-all-costs battles in which truth, ethics, and civility are among the casualties. There’s a danger that if churches become involved in partisan politics, they will lose dignity and respect in the eyes of the public. When the mud starts flying in the political arena, some of it will land on politically active churches.

Further, it’s not in the best interest of religion for the government to transform ministers into political bosses, and churches into PACs and money-laundering operations for politicians. Religion should strive to be above those levels.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (www.au.org), testified against the bill before a congressional subcommittee. He said it “would scrap a time-tested system and substitute a reckless experiment in mixing religion and partisan politics.”

Lynn, who is also a United Church of Christ minister, predicted the result would be “the corruption of the church and the political process.”

Keeping church and state separate is the sensible and mutually beneficial course on this issue.