Churches on Right Seek Right to Back Candidates
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
February 3, 2002
As far back as the Revolutionary War, America's religious leaders have taken to their pulpits to galvanize their followers on the political issues of the day, from taxation to slavery to abortion. But since 1954, when Senator Lyndon B. Johnson pushed a little-noticed law through Congress, ministers have been barred from preaching about political candidates.
Under the law, churches are prohibited from endorsing or opposing candidates or risk being stripped of their tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service. Nevertheless, the law is frequently flouted, and the I.R.S. rarely intervenes.
Now religious conservatives are starting a campaign to remove the prohibition. A Republican member of Congress from North Carolina, Walter B. Jones Jr., decided last year to make it his signature issue.
The cause has been taken up by more than 12 religious conservative lobbying groups and is becoming a frequent topic on Christian talk shows on radio and television.
Mr. Jones's bill, the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, would "permit churches and other houses of worship to engage in political campaigns." Although it has yet to be scheduled for a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee, the legislation, H.R. 2357, has gathered 112 co-sponsors, all but four of them Republicans. Among them are the majority whip, Tom DeLay, and the majority leader, Dick Armey, both of Texas.
"Many churches and pastors frankly don't speak out on the moral issues of the day for the fear they may be regarded by the I.R.S. as too political," said Colby M. May, Washington director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which works on religious cases. "You've got to ask, 'Why are we putting our I.R.S., which is designed to collect revenue for the general treasury, in the position of being the speech police?' "
Opponents say the bill is little more than a strategy by leaders of the religious right like Pat Robertson, the Christian broadcaster, to mobilize conservative churches on behalf of conservative candidates. Mr. Robertson recently had Mr. Jones as a guest on "The 700 Club," his television show, and encouraged his viewers to contact their legislators to support the bill.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, defended the current law, calling it "a good thing for the church and a good thing for our political system." "If we change it," Mr. Lynn said, "we're going to see politicians running around seeking support of churches and hoping that they can curry favor with those churches by promising them money and favors."
The law dates from 1954, when Mr. Johnson added an amendment to a revenue bill that prohibited all groups with a nonprofit, or 501(c)3, tax-exempt status from endorsing or opposing candidates. It passed by unanimous consent.
Historians have said Mr. Johnson intended to silence two groups connected to the Hunt family, which opposed his re-election. But because houses of worship also have the exempt designation, the law also applied to them.
"Johnson took away the freedom of our preachers, priests and rabbis," Mr. Jones said in an interview.
Nevertheless, years went by and preachers endorsed politicians from the pulpit with no repercussions. But in the last two decades, conservative and evangelical churches have become increasingly involved in campaigns, drawing more scrutiny by the revenue service.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a liberal watchdog group, began sending churches warnings about the prohibition on partisan politics and reported several churches, accusing them of overstepping the law.
On the talk shows, Mr. Jones and others have accused the revenue service of biased enforcement, investigating just conservative, predominantly white churches while ignoring liberal, predominantly black churches that routinely invite candidates to appear in their pulpits.
The I.R.S., which declined to comment, has penalized extremely few churches. In the case that received the most attention, the conservative Church at Pierce Creek in Conklin, N.Y., near Binghamton, had its tax- exempt status revoked for sponsoring a full-page advertisement that opposed Bill Clinton's presidential candidacy.
Although Mr. Jones's bill has become a pet cause for the religious right, with the Rev. Jerry Falwell making it the centerpiece of a recent fund-raising letter, it is unclear how many members of the clergy will promote it. Even one minister whose church endured a four-year investigation that was subsequently dropped said that although churches should be allowed to endorse candidates, they should avoid it.
"I just think the religious entities of America need to keep their prophetic voice," said the Rev. Ed Young, senior minister of the Second Baptist Church in Houston. "And you lose that if you send money to politicians or openly support them during an election season."
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