Congress Should Not Open The Door To Church-based Partisan Politicking, Americans United Tells House Panel

AU's Lynn Says Proposed Bills Would Allow TV Preachers To Turn Churches Into A 'Powerful Political Machine'

Changing federal tax law to allow houses of worship to engage in partisan politicking would threaten the integrity of churches and create a dangerous loophole in campaign finance laws, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In testimony before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight today, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said two bills under consideration would open the door to the use of church funds and personnel for partisan politics.

"These bills would allow money to go straight from the collection plate to buying campaign bumper stickers and attack ads," Lynn said. "That is a vision as morally repugnant as it is politically unhealthy."

Lynn also rejected arguments that the proposals will promote free speech.

"Make no mistake, these bills are not about 'free speech'; instead, they would promote the corruption of the church and the political process," Lynn told the subcommittee. "No freedom of speech of any American pastor, priest, imam or rabbi is endangered by the current Tax Code. Religious leaders are as free today as any time in American history to expose moral evils, propose ethical solutions and hold our leaders to the highest standards. In fact, the only thing that our tax laws prohibit is use of resources or personnel of a tax-exempt group to promote the campaigns of candidates for public office."

Lynn was invited by the subcommittee to testify against two bills pending in Congress -- Rep. Walter B. Jones' "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357) and Rep. Philip M. Crane's "Bright-Line Act of 2001" (H.R. 2931).

The measures would scrap a provision in federal tax law that prohibits houses of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. In addition, the bills would permit houses of worship to raise money for candidates and give them other types of support. Secular non-profits would still have to abide by the politicking ban.

Jones' bill was written by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice.

Lynn told the subcommittee, "TV preachers and their special interest groups want to turn America's churches into a powerful political machine and undermine the principle of church-state separation. Lawyers for Pat Robertson are out front pushing this legislation. And D. James Kennedy, who is here today to express support for the bill, has repeatedly said he believes church-state separation is a 'lie' and that he wants to 'reclaim America for Christ.'"

Lynn asserted that the American religious community and the people do not support this concept and urged Congress to reject the proposals.

"According to a poll conducted this year, 70 percent of Americans disapprove of the idea of churches endorsing political candidates," Lynn told the subcommittee. "Little wonder. Most parishioners want the church board to debate expenditures on aid to the homeless and hungry, not wrangle over which politicians will be showered with the grace of 5 or 10 percent of the collection plate revenues."

Continued Lynn, "Churchgoers know that theology and ethics are complex enough to deeply divide congregations; they don't need the additional headaches of choosing candidates. Few pastors themselves want to serve their flocks as both spiritual leader and political boss."

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.

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.