At a meeting of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life on September 28, Dr. Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, defined the overall sentiment by saying, “There is a much stronger relationship now between religious convictions and public policy.”
The Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act (H.R. 235) was a focal point at the forum. Introduced on January 8, 2003, by Rep. Walter Jones (R- North Carolina), H.R. 235 would prevent the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from revoking or denying preferred tax status to a church on the grounds of alleged political activity by that church. Concerned Women for America strongly supports H.R. 235, known as the Jones bill, and has lobbied extensively on its behalf.
“If a church could be put out of business by the adverse decision of an IRS official, then the state has the power to suppress a church,” says Michael Schwartz, vice president for government relations for Concerned Women for America. “This is something that should be of grave concern to all citizens, especially those who are church members.”
Charitable nonprofit organizations (including religious organizations) have the tax code 501(c)(3), which exempts them from any property or sales tax, and makes all donations to them tax-deductible. The IRS code currently restricts all 501(c)(3) organizations from any partisan political activity, such as endorsing a candidate. Many churches, however, question where the line is drawn. Can churches hold voter registration drives? Can they invite candidates to address their congregations?
Panelists at the forum discussed the legal and moral implications of the IRS code as it stands. Dr. Robert Tuttle, associate professor of law at George Washington University Law School, contended that although the Constitution guarantees churches free exercise and expression of religion, the current IRS code does not infringe upon that right. They are not singled out in restrictions upon partisan activity; schools, hospitals, museums and more are also included, according to The Pew Forum publication Politics and the Pulpit. There is no evidence that the application of these regulations is discriminatory, Dr. Tuttle claimed.
As Dr. Tuttle also pointed out, liberals may also question the passage of H.R. 235 because it would keep the restraint on other 501(c)(3) organizations. Actions by the Bush-Cheney campaign to mobilize religious voters raised a ruckus among Left-leaning liberals and the Kerry-Edwards campaign visits to predominantly African-American churches did not go unnoticed among conservatives.
Although the IRS has not frequently enforced this restriction against churches, in 1992, it revoked the tax-exempt status of the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, New York. Four days before the 1992 national election, the Church placed a full-page advertisement in The Washington Times and USA Today, stating that it would be a sin to vote for then-Gov. Bill Clinton. The ad cited Biblical passages and Clinton’s positions on many issues.
In Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, the church claimed the IRS had infringed upon its free speech and exercise, and had singled it out of because of its political views. The case lost in district court and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The judgment held that the Church (and other churches) still has the means to get involved in political activity by establishing related, but separately incorporated, organizations under section 501(c)(4) of the Code.
At the forum, however, Dr. Land made clear that the Jones bill is completely legal and necessary because the government shouldn’t be able to decide whether churches can engage in political activity. That decision should be left to them. Still, Dr. Land maintains that churches can preach on social and moral values, disseminate information, and use church funds to engage in nonpartisan political activity. They should not, however, allow one candidate to speak, fundraise, or campaign without giving equal opportunity to all candidates, Dr. Land said.
The forum illustrated that a large chasm remains between left and right over the issue of political activity in churches, but with more than 160 co-sponsors on the Jones bill, the debate is heating up.
i) Deirdre Dessingue, Politics and the Pulpit: 2004, A Guide to the Internal Revenue Code Restrictions on the Political Activity of Religious Organizations (Washington, D.C.: The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2004), 4.
Eva Arlia is an intern with the Beverly LaHaye Institute.
For more information, read CWA’s brochure, Political Guidelines for Churches and Pastors. Click here.