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Congress Considers Protecting Free Speech for Churches

Wednesday, 15 May 2002 12:00 AM

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight heard testimony Tuesday on two bills designed to protect churches and other religious organizations from the IRS: the Bright-Line Act of 2001 and the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act.

The Bright-Line Act of 2001 would amend the Internal Revenue Code to allow churches to participate or intervene in political campaigns while still maintaining their tax-exempt status, so long as such participation is not a "substantial part" of their activities.

The Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act is a more detailed proposal. It would deny tax-exempt status to any non-profit organization if the organization:

Colby May, senior counsel for American Center for Law and Justice, says it is essential that one of the bills be passed into law.

"If this were 1953, we wouldn't need this hearing because churches were able to do this without concern or fear that federal government was going to come and revoke their tax exemption," May said.

In fact, before 1954, churches were deemed to be able to speak out on any issue they desired. What some call the "separation of state from church" mandated by the First Amendment proclamation that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," was considered to be absolute.

Then on July 2, 1954, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, introduced an amendment to a tax code revision that was being considered on the Senate floor.

The amendment, which prohibits all non-profit groups – including churches – from engaging in political activity without losing their tax-exempt status, passed with no debate. It was later learned that Johnson introduced the amendment in response to two non-profit, anti-communist organizations opposing his primary re-election bid in Texas.

Despite the origin of the law, the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says it must remain in force to avoid "a reckless experiment in mixing religion with partisan politics.

"Make no mistake. These bills are not about free speech," Lynn claimed in his testimony to the subcommittee. "Instead they would promote the corruption of the church and the corruption of the political process."

Lynn's group also opposes graduation prayers at public schools, the display of the Ten Commandments on public property, and the teaching of the theory of intelligent design alongside the theory of evolution in public schools.

Dr. D. James Kennedy, president of Coral Ridge Ministries, notes the difficulty even tax lawyers, much less religious leaders, have interpreting the IRS regulations.

"I have talked to many ministers who will not say anything on any social issue or any other issue that might be perceived as being unacceptable," he explained, "because they were afraid that the IRS would come down on them ... and that they would experience repercussions because of that."

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., fears that, if the bills are passed, churches will become a "conduit [for] large contributions" to political candidates and campaigns.

A tax law expert told Lewis that federal election laws would prohibit tax-exempt money collected for religious purposes from being passed on to political campaigns.

"That is existing law, and there's no suggestion that it would change," said Steven Miller, director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., says the greater fear should be the unconstitutional power vested in the IRS.

"I firmly believe that threatening the tax-exempt status of those houses of worship whose speech the IRS deems has 'crossed the line into politics' has the effect of denying their right to the free exercise of their religious beliefs," he said.

Jones says religious leaders should not have to fear consequences from the government when speaking out to encourage "the practical political application" of the teachings of their faith.

"That," he concluded, "is as chilling as it is wrong."

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The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight heard testimony Tuesday on two bills designed to protect churches and other religious organizations from the IRS: the Bright-Line Act of 2001 and the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act. The Bright-Line Act...
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Wednesday, 15 May 2002 12:00 AM
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