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Leaders of the House of Representatives plan to bring to the floor tomorrow a bill authored by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., that would free churches from political harassment by the Internal Revenue Service.
The Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (HR 2357) would allow churches to engage in an “insubstantial” amount of political speech activity without endangering their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.
“Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code has been interpreted by courts to prevent even a single activity which might be regarded as ‘participating in, or intervening in’ a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate for public office,” says a description of the bill provided by Jones’ office. “HR 2357 confirms this country’s tradition and respect for the First Amendment by removing the muzzle from churches and houses of worship created by the absolute ban against all speech or activities that may be regarded as ‘political.’
“The political ban in Section 501(c)(3) was inserted in 1954 by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson. This was done with a floor amendment to the Revenue Act of 1954, and absolutely no hearings or congressional record was developed on the need or reasons for the absolute ban.”
“Johnson wanted to silence some of his opponents,” said Jones in an interview. “It is time to restore the right of political speech to churches and their pastors.”
“The IRS has taken the position that ‘coded language’ violates the political prohibition,” American Center for Law and Justice Director Colby May told the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight on May 14. “In the publication ‘Election Year Issues,’ it explains that ‘[t ]he concern is that [an exempt] organization may support or oppose a particular candidate without specifically naming the candidate by using code words to substitute for the candidate’s name in its message, such as ‘conservative,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘pro-life,’ ‘pro-choice,’ ‘anti- choice,’ ‘Republican,’ or ‘Democrat,’ etc.”
May cited an example of a church’s losing its tax-exempt status. “A conservative evangelical church in upstate New York, the Church at Pierce Creek, had its tax exemption revoked in 1995 for impermissible ‘political’ activity,” he said. “The offending activity involved its published moral and religious stand in the newspaper calling abortions on demand, homosexuality and premarital sex ‘sins.’ ‘Christians’ were admonished to oppose such ‘sins’ and not vote for then-Gov. Clinton.”
In New York, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese spent 10 years defending itself from a lawsuit filed by pro-abortion-rights groups who demanded that the IRS strip the church of its tax-exempt status because its pro-life activities were too political. In 1989, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs did not have the standing to sue, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.
May provided a long list of incidents in which churches have supported Democratic candidates in the last decade without losing their tax-exempt status. “Clearly, churches and houses of worship engage in ‘political activity,'” he said. “However, the IRS uses its authority selectively to only target those it wishes to silence or threaten. Today it may be orthodox and conservative views, but tomorrow it could be liberal or unconventional views.”
Jones pointed to the case of former Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y., pastor of Allen Episcopal Methodist Church in the Jamaica section of New York City, who received an admonitory letter from the IRS for endorsing Al Gore for president from the pulpit.
Because the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., never voted Jones’ bill out, House leaders plan to bring it up under suspension of the rules, meaning it will need a two-thirds majority to pass.
Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., has introduced similar legislation in the Senate. Jones conceded that a two-thirds vote was unlikely, but said, “It would probably not come up in the [Democratic-controlled] Senate this year anyway. If we can get a majority in the House now, we can use that to try again next year.”