Religious Right Pushes Legislation To Allow Church Electioneering

Joined by a phalanx of Religious Right leaders, U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) has announced the reintroduction of a bill that would allow houses of worship to endorse candidates for public office.

Jones unveiled the legislation at a Washington, D.C., press conference March 2. Joining him at the event were representatives from the American Center for Law and Justice, the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, Priests for Life, Concerned Women for America, Joyce Meyer Ministries and TV preacher D. James Kennedy’s Center for Reclaiming America.

The push marks Jones’ third effort to pass the bill. The measure received a floor vote in the House in 2002, where it failed handily, 178-239.

This time, Jones has worked hard to line up Religious Right support and has also been reaching out to black clergy. Among the speakers at the press conference was the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, an African-American minister who formerly served as the non-voting congressional delegate from the District of Columbia.

At the press conference, Jones distributed copies of a short book, Gag Order: How An Unjust Law Is Being Used To Silence Pastors, penned by Gary Cass, executive director of Kennedy’s Center for Reclaiming America. (Kennedy provided the foreword, and its introduction is by Jones.)

The Rev. Rod Parsley, a TV evangelist and pastor of the World Harvest Church in Columbus, Ohio, demanded passage of the Jones bill, insisting that the IRS provision stifles the voices of religious leaders.

“This legislation is necessary considering the condition of our country,” said Parsley, who has founded a new Religious Right group called the Center for Moral Clarity. “Purveyors of pornography are upheld as paragons of free speech while ministers are muzzled.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, accused the IRS of spying on churches.

“The IRS is now sending agents in to monitor what churches and pastors say,” charged Sekulow. “I don’t think that’s what the Founders had in mind.” (Sekulow offered no evidence to support his allegation, and Americans United is aware of none.)

Religious Right leaders are pushing the Jones bill because they are frustrated over their inability to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, The Hill newspaper reported March 2. The groups apparently believe that once the IRS language is repealed, ministers can turn up the heat on candidates and elect more supporters of the amendment to Congress.

The Hill reported, “Jim Backlin, vice president of legislative affairs for the Christian Coalition, said passing the Jones bill would enable religious leaders to endorse candidates who support a federal marriage amendment. Down the line, Backlin said, more candidates who support a constitutional amendment would be elected to Congress. Backlin will meet House and Senate Republican leaders this month and plans to stress the importance of the Jones bill.”

Jones’ “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005” states that a church cannot lose its tax-exempt status “because of the content, preparation, or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.”

In an effort to assauge fears of senators who backed campaign-finance reform, Jones has added a new section to H.R. 235 this year. The revised language says pastors can endorse or oppose candidates “so long as these views are not disseminated beyond the members and guests assembled together at the service.”

The provision is designed to avoid endorsements over the airwaves, which critics had charged could undermine campaign-finance reform laws.

Jones’ proposal has 174 cosponsors in the House and is backed in the Senate by U.S. Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). But it still faces one serious roadblock: U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who is said to be no fan of the scheme.

Conservatives outside of Congress have also warned that the bill could have negative consequences. Joseph Loconte, a research fellow who studies religion at the Heritage Foundation, told Religion News Service that politicizing churches would only add to the partisan divide that characterizes America.

“We don’t want to see red churches and blue churches,” Loconte said. “It’s a horrible idea for church ministers to endorse candidates from the pulpit because it’s so inherently divisive.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has helped lead opposition to the Jones bill. AU representatives distributed press releases opposing the measure at Jones’ press conference, much to the consternation of the North Carolina congressman and his staff.

In addition, a broad coalition of religious and civil liberties organizations has come together to resist the church electioneering scheme.