The House Ways & Means Oversight Committee has announced plans to hold a May 14 hearing on controversial proposals to allow houses of worship to engage in partisan politicking.
Currently pending in Congress are two bills that would rewrite federal tax law to allow churches to use their tax-exempt resources to support political candidates.
The bill getting the most attention is Rep. Walter Jones' "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357), which was written by lawyers at TV Preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice. Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) has introduced a second measure, H.R. 2931.
Jones' H.R. 2357 has already garnered the support of 114 co-sponsors in the House, including top GOP House leaders, such as Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay. Several Religious Right leaders, including Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, have been aggressively lobbying on behalf of the legislation.
Jones and other proponents have said the bills are intended to counter the educational work done by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. As a result, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, has been called by the House committee to testify on the pending legislation.
"I welcome the opportunity to tell lawmakers about the serious legal and ethical flaws of this proposal," Lynn said. "When Americans put tax-exempt donations in a collection plate, they're don't expect the money to pay for campaign attack ads and candidate bumper stickers."
Under existing law, religious leaders have a clear legal right to use their pulpits to address moral and political issues. Tax law, however, prohibits houses of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates or using tax-exempt donations for partisan campaigns.
For the last six years, Americans United has led a project to educate religious leaders on tax law and has encouraged pastors to reject the efforts of groups such as the Christian Coalition, which seek to turn the nation's churches into a partisan political machine.
In the 2000 election cycle, AU distributed almost 300,000 letters to religious leaders across the country with valuable information on tax law as it relates to church politicking. Rep. Jones later acknowledged that it was this AU mailing that motivated him to introduce his bill to change the law.
Since then, Jones has frequently mischaracterized the limits placed on churches regarding their political activities, arguing that religious leaders are prohibited from speaking out on issues of interest to their congregations. Opponents of his legislation note that this assertion is false -- religious leaders already have the right to address moral and political issues.
Lynn also noted that the proposal would wreak havoc on the nation's campaign finance laws.
"Houses of worship are awarded tax-exempt status because the government assumes that their work is charitable and educational, not political," Lynn said. "To undo the restriction on church electioneering -- allowing religious groups to act as political action committees while maintaining their tax-exempt status -- would create a huge loophole in campaign finance laws."
Lynn said the likely result is unappealing.
"Candidates and their supporters could give generous sums of money to houses of worship," Lynn said, "write off the donations as tax-deductible, then have the churches work on behalf of the campaign, essentially making churches part of a money-laundering scheme."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.