Rep. Jones Resurrects Legislation To Allow Pulpit Politicking

Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) has retooled his church electioneering bill and reintroduced it in the House of Representatives.

Jones' new bill, the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act (H.R. 235), is more narrowly tailored than his previous effort but still suffers serious defects, critics say.

The measure would allow religious leaders and others to endorse candidates from the pulpit without jeopardizing the house of worship's tax-exempt status. It states that a house of worship cannot be denied tax exemption because of "the content, preparation, or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings."

Currently, federal law bars all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt groups from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. The restriction applies to all non-profits, not just churches. Jones' bill would lift the regulation only for houses of worship and church associations, integrated auxiliaries and conventions.

Jones introduced similar legislation last year. That bill was defeated by the House 239-178. During floor debate, some House members raised concerns that the Jones bill would permit churches to raise money for candidates. Jones says his new measure addresses that problem by specifically stating that nothing in the legislation is intended to permit "disbursements for electioneering communications, or political expenditures."

But opponents of the bill, led by Americans United, point out that candidates and pastors could still raise money for campaigns from the pulpit, merely by including a financial pitch during a sermon or other religious "presentation."

Jones has continued to spread misinformation about the scope of federal tax law. In a June interview with Tax Analysts, Jones attacked Americans United and remarked, "I am a firm believer that what we're talking about is the moral future of America. If a spiritual leader chooses to talk about the moral or political issues of the day but is prohibited because of the [IRS regulations], then I think the moral future of America is in jeopardy."

Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn noted that the relevant sections of the tax code bar only election intervention not discussion of issues. Commentary about political and moral issues is protected by the First Amendment, Lynn said.

Lynn added that he has pointed this out to Jones several times, but Jones continues to make the claim that the IRS provision prevents churches from discussing issues.

The Religious Right is promoting the bill aggressively. On June 10, Jones appeared on TV preacher Pat Robert­son's "700 Club" and was interviewed by Robertson's son, Gordon.

During the segment, Jones asserted that opposition to church-based politicking is led by "a liberal element that wants to lock the doors or close the doors in our more conservative traditional churches."

Jones' new bill currently has 150 cosponsors and is pending before the House Ways and Means Committee. However, Washington observers say the measure may be brought to the House floor as part of the "suspension calendar," a maneuver that allows House leaders to circumvent normal procedures.