Houses of worship joining partisan political fray not a good idea

Sunday, September 29, 2002

God and politics mix in America – always have and always will.

But unlike Iran and many other countries, we do draw a line in the United States. Under current Internal Revenue Service regulations, churches and other houses of worship can speak out on public policy issues, but they can’t endorse or oppose political candidates – and they can’t fund political campaigns.

That line may soon be eliminated if Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C., has his way. He’s introduced a bill (H.R. 2357) that would allow houses of worship to endorse candidates and contribute money to political campaigns. And 130 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have already signed up as co-sponsors.

The IRS regulation Jones wants to repeal was put in place by Congress almost 50 years ago. According to Jones, then-Senator Lyndon Johnson was so angered by the actions of a nonprofit group that opposed his reelection that he persuaded Congress to allow the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of nonprofit groups that endorse or oppose candidates.

Rep. Jones insists that this is a “free speech” issue. Why shouldn’t ministers use the pulpit to say whatever they wish – including endorsing candidates running for office? And why can’t churches, synagogues, mosques and temples spend their money any way they want to – including on political campaigns?

The answer is simple: Houses of worship are tax exempt and contributions to houses of worship are tax-deductible. Contributions to political parties and candidates are not. Remove the current IRS restriction on electioneering, and churches become hotbeds of partisan conflict where people can funnel money to political campaigns (and get a tax deduction at the same time). Why should taxpayers subsidize partisan political activity by houses of worship?

Whatever the motives of Lyndon Johnson, this regulation is a good idea.

Has the IRS really “muzzled” religious people, as Jones charges? Hardly. Churches in a rural North Carolina town recently organized to stop liberalization of local liquor laws. Religious groups in Miami lined up (pro and con) in the battle to repeal a “gay rights” ordinance. Clergy of all stripes are speaking out for and against the president’s plan to attack Iraq. And the list goes on. Religious voices are heard loudly and frequently on all sides of political debates in America’s public square.

The First Amendment may separate church from state, but it doesn’t separate religion from politics or public life. Religious people and groups are free to enter the fray – as long as they don’t use the engine of government to impose their religion on anyone. And, if houses of worship apply for tax-exempt status as 501(c) 3 charitable organizations, they must refrain from endorsing candidates from the pulpit or funding political campaigns.

Does this IRS regulation lead to harassment of churches – or government entanglement with religion? Again, Jones and his supporters have exaggerated the problem. Only rarely does the IRS threaten to revoke a church’s tax-exempt status – and only once has it done so. In the last presidential campaign, the Rev. Floyd Flake got a warning from the IRS when he endorsed Al Gore from the pulpit. And in 1995, a church in Binghamton, N.Y., lost its tax-exempt status because it attacked Bill Clinton in a newspaper ad during the 1992 election. But these cases are few and far between. No church has lost its tax exemption for merely speaking out on moral, social or political issues of the day.

If religious groups or leaders feel compelled to take sides in political campaigns, they can simply set up a separate political action committee for electioneering. Contributions would not be tax-deductible (just like other political action committees) and reporting requirements would be strict (so that the public knows where candidates get their money).

And if churches still don’t like the IRS restrictions on partisan campaigning, they can always give up their tax-exempt status.

Most Americans are religious people – and most want religion to play an important role in American public life. But few want to see their churches, synagogues, mosques or temples divided by party politics. In fact, 70% of Americans oppose houses of worship endorsing political candidates, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.

When houses of worship provide moral and spiritual guidance on the great issues of our day, they are the conscience of America. When they endorse or oppose political candidates or fund campaigns, they risk becoming extensions of political parties and interests. IRS or no IRS, houses of worship would be wise to keep out of partisan politics.

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