Religious Right allies in Congress are quietly trying to alter the tax code to permit church-based electioneering in advance of November's elections to help right-wing candidates, Americans United for Separation of Church and State charged today.
At issue is a 50-year-old provision in federal tax law that bars non-profit groups, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) has repeatedly introduced legislation to repeal the measure, but the House has shown little interest in it. The Jones bill was voted down in October of 2002, and Jones has not been able to engineer another vote since then.
Frustrated, Jones and his supporters are insisting that his measure be inserted into a corporate tax reform bill. According to a report in The Hill newspaper, 131 members of the House back the Jones effort and have written to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) pressing for action. They want to put the change into the omnibus tax bill during conference negotiations.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is also pushing for adoption of the change during the conference process.
"This is a backdoor ploy to recruit America's houses of worship into partisan politicking," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "Jones and his allies can't win on the floor of either house, so they're trying this scheme to circumvent the legislative process."
Lynn noted that Jones has been upfront about the partisan nature of his goals: He believes repealing the no-politicking rule will lead to the election of more conservative Republicans.
In a column published in July, Religious Right leader Paul Weyrich observed, "Jones is...convinced that the passage of his bill means the difference between victory and defeat for the president and many Senate candidates. One prime example is his colleague Rep. Richard Burr, who is running for the seat vacated by Sen. John Edwards, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee."
Lynn said that while Jones frequently wraps his bill in lofty rhetoric about free speech, his real goal is to use churches to engineer election victories for Religious Right candidates.
"This bill has nothing to do with free speech," said Lynn. "It is merely a vehicle for Jones and his supporters to build church-based political machines. He would corrupt the mission of the church by changing the focus from the spiritual to the political."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State 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.
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.