House Committee Scuttles Plan To Allow Church Electioneering

Americans United Hails Removal Of 'Safe Harbor' Provisions

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has hailed yesterday's vote by a House committee to remove provisions from a tax bill that would have allowed houses of worship to intervene in partisan politics.
 
The so-called "Safe Harbor for Churches" section of the "American Jobs Creation Act of 2004" (H.R. 4520) would have revised current law, which forbids churches from endorsing candidates for public office, and replaced it with watered-down language giving churches the right to intervene in electoral politics.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted unanimously last night to remove the provisions after it became clear that the proposed change had no support.

"Far from creating a 'safe harbor,' this scheme would have set houses of worship adrift on the stormy seas of partisan politics," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "I'm glad the committee decided to torpedo it.

"Americans do not want to see their churches politicized," continued Lynn. "Our houses of worship are already free to speak out on public concerns, and they don't need politicians trying to turn them into cogs in a political machine."  

The church politicking provisions would have allowed religious leaders to "unintentionally" endorse or oppose candidates up to three times per year. Under current law, a house of worship can lose its tax-exempt status for intervening in partisan politics.

Some Washington observers noted that the provisions were quietly placed in the tax bill at the same time that the Bush/Cheney re-election campaign was waging an outreach effort to "friendly congregations."

The 'Safe Harbor' provisions ran into trouble from the start. Shortly after their place in the bill was discovered, officials with the Southern Baptist Convention and other Religious Right groups announced they would not support the language. Organizations that promote separation of church and state also attacked it. With the move garnering virtually no support from any quarter, its backers agreed to withdraw it.

AU's Lynn warned, however, that the battle over church politicking is still under way. He noted that U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) is promoting a bill that would remove language from the IRS Code and allow houses of worship to engage in politicking with no penalties.

"We won this skirmish in Congress, but the larger battle is far from over," Lynn said. "We will continue to vigorously oppose misguided schemes that would politicize America's houses of worship."

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.