Election 2004  
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Let’s Get Political

Activist churches and religious conservatives are pushing a bill that would provide a neat little exemption for them to engage in partisan politics.
 
 
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It was eight years of Bill Clinton that convinced Pastor Rick Scarborough of the need for invigorated Christian activism.

"[H]is radical position on abortion, even vetoing [legislation banning] partial-birth abortion twice, illustrates the moral divide between those of us who believe strongly in Biblical precepts and those who don't," says Scarborough, a Houston-based Baptist evangelist. "Bill Clinton was elected twice because 75 percent of born-again evangelicals in the country didn't go to the polls."

To energize religious voters, Scarborough founded Vision America, a non-profit voter education and mobilization organization with "over 1,000 pastors and churches affiliated," according to the group's website.

Faith-based political activism is a long-standing American tradition that includes pacifist Quakers, Jesuit social justice activists and the Christian Coalition's conservative evangelicals. More recently, the abortion issue has galvanized some conservative Christians. Witness Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, who recently pledged to deny communion to Catholic voters who support abortion rights. Pastor Scarborough -- and other clergy like him -- want to take their moral outrage over issues like abortion and step boldly into the political arena.

They want to preach about politics, they want it to be legal and they want to keep their tax-exempt status.

Standing in their way is Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code -- which oversees tax-exempt nonprofit charities, and which prohibits candidate or legislative endorsements.

Their legislative solution -- H.R. 235, the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act -- was introduced by Rep. Walter B. Jones (R.-NC), and would prevent churches from losing their tax exemption "because of the content, preparation, or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings." In short, a church leader may advocate for or against any candidate from the pulpit. The bill creates no such exemption for secular 501(c)(3) public charities.

Although churches are periodically investigated for prohibited political activity, only one -- the Binghamton, N.Y.-based Church at Pierce Creek -- has had its tax-exempt status revoked. The church ran a full-page advertisement in USA Today during the 1992 presidential campaign attacking candidate Clinton's stance on abortion, claiming he supported "policies that are in rebellion to God's laws." The ad solicited tax-deductible contributions to the church.

The fate of the Pierce Creek church underpins a letter circulated each election year by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AUSCS), reminding church leaders to refrain from partisan political activity, and from distributing voter guides produced by the Christian Coalition, which lost its tax-exempt status in 1999 due to politicized activities.

The letter notes that churches may organize nonpartisan voter registrations, host campaign events to which all candidates in a race are invited, and even invite a candidate to address congregations -- without soliciting votes.

It also affirms that "churches have, and have always had, the right to speak on the hot social, political topics of the day," said AUSCS spokesman Jeremy Leaming. "All we're asking is that they, like all other non-profits, not use their resources to endorse candidates -- become, in essence, political machines."

People for the American Way agrees, stating on its web site that "there is no limit" on political comments by religious leaders, and that they can "speak through sermons, internal communications or even as commentators in the news media, as long as they refrain from endorsing a candidate on behalf of the house of faith."

Some conservative Christians disagree about the clarity of current law. Father Frank Pavone, director of the Catholic anti-abortion group Priests for Life, says federal regulations are unclear. "I can give a talk today and think I was in the guidelines and find out six months later somebody is launching a complaint, not so much because of what I said, but because of the timing and the implications," he says. "The ambiguity is what's unfair."

He believes preaching that "abortion is a sin" in an election year when abortion is an issue could run afoul of the law.

Leaming finds this reading of the law extreme: "The IRS is focused on endorsements of candidates or other blatant politicking on behalf of a candidate," he says. "Preaching about issues ... is not likely to jeopardize a nonprofit's tax-exempt status."

Regardless, says Pavone, many priests hesitate to speak due to "attorneys who have an overly restrictive interpretation of the law."

In response, Priests for Life is planning to distribute their own letter to Catholic parishes this year, discussing ways to preach an anti-abortion message without fear of legal consequences.

Supporting passage of H.R. 235 are some major conservative groups and religious leaders, including the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), Concerned Women for America, the Religious Freedom Coalition, as well as Dr. James Dobson and Beverly LaHaye.

Colby May, senior counsel and director of the ACLJ, says the IRS has "been put in the position of being the thought and the speech police. That, we think, is not only anti-free speech, but really outside what ought to be the normal activity for the tax-collecting arm of the government."

The ACLJ was also a major proponent of an earlier version, H.R. 2357 -- the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act -- that failed on a vote of 178-239 in October 2002.

Invoking the free-speech argument is "extremely misleading" says Tanya Clay, deputy director of public policy for People for the American Way. She says the bill amounts to an "end run" around both IRS regulations and the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act's ban on using soft money to influence elections.

Because 501(c)(3) nonprofits are public charities, not political organizations, they are not covered by the soft money ban, nor do the have to file with the Federal Election Commission, says Marianne Viray, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign-finance reform group.

Critics say H.R. 235 would open a soft-money loophole, permitting tax-exempt churches with radio and TV programs to broadcast candidate endorsements.

"There is tremendous campaign value to being able to put on an endorsement sermon, especially on television, the Sunday before an election," says Roger Limoges, deputy director for public policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance.

But May, of the ACLJ, asserts that campaign-finance laws would not change. "[i]t just says whatever may be said from the pulpit is not something the IRS will evaluate in determining whether there's been a political intervention under the tax code."

The bill was referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means last year. Meanwhile, the committee chair, Rep. Bill Thomas of California, introduced a rider -- something called the "Safe Harbor for Churches" provision -- to another bill, which would have permitted churches up to three deliberate political endorsements (or similar violations) without a loss of their tax-exempt status. It was defeated in committee on a voice vote.

Interestingly, conservative groups which support H.R. 235 opposed Thomas' rider -- because it did not guarantee unequivocal freedom of speech for the clergy.

Not all religious groups and leaders are supportive of H.R. 235. The American Jewish Congress, and the United Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches are all identified in a February 2004 AUSCS newsletter as opponents of the bill.

"The Adventist Church ... believes that churches that endorse political candidates create a nexus between the political sphere and spiritual sphere that isn't healthy for either side," said church spokesman Kermit Netteburg. "We do believe that 501(c)(3) [organizations] ought to be involved in the ongoing dialogue of public issues. That's very different from endorsing specific political candidates."

And polls show that most Americans -- and most clergy -- support the current ban on partisan political activity. A February Interfaith Alliance/Zogby International poll revealed that 76 percent of Americans disapprove of religious leaders endorsing candidates from the pulpit.

In 2002, a Gallup/Interfaith Alliance poll found that 77 percent of clergy believe that religious leaders should not endorse candidates, but that a majority of clergy and their constituents supported clergy taking an active role in voter turnout.

Vision America's Scarborough, an activist minister by any measure, supports H.R. 235, but says there are limits to the role of religion in politics. "Christians are not going to flock to churches that are political machines," he said. "Any pastor that does that is a fool."

Nevertheless, he wants to be able to preach as he pleases.

"I don't believe there should be any restriction on a pastor who stands before a congregation and feels led to address an issue," he says. "If it's partisan, so be it."

Julia Scott is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and Associate Editor with Newsdesk.org. Additional reporting was provided by Josh Wilson.