Presbyterian Washington Office sounds a warning:
Legislation would let religious leaders endorse
candidates from the pulpit.
The right can't lose: If it fails, they'll have a
campaign issue to use against opponents in November.
analysis of the "Political Speech Bill"
The Presbyterian Washington Office has
provided more information on the "Political Speech
Bill," HR2357, which would give churches and pastors
greater freedom to engage in direct political activities. This
legal analysis of the bill has been provided by the Office of
Management and Budget. Basically the paper argues that, contrary
to the claims of the bill's proponents, the bill is not
needed to allow religious leaders to speak on issues, and the
Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 will not prevent
religious congregations from spending funds on partisan
electioneering if H.R. 2357 becomes law.
religious groups urge opposition to House bills that would
allow churches to endorse candidates and otherwise involve
themselves in partisan political activities. [9-13-02]
By Michelle Goldberg, a staff writer for Salon
based in New York.
Sept. 4, 2002 - On Sept. 11 last year, Rep. Walter
Jones, R-N.C., introduced a bill that would allow churches, temples,
mosques and other houses of worship to channel donations directly to
political campaigns, and to use church resources to help elect or defeat
specific candidates without losing their tax-exempt status.
Not surprisingly, given the timing, no one noticed.
Even once the dust cleared from the terror attacks, the Houses
of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, which would
dramatically increase the role of religion in politics and undermine
much campaign-finance reform, has been little covered in the mainstream
media. Civil liberties watchdog groups "thought it was dead,"
says Terri Schroeder, legislative analyst at the American Civil
It wasn't. Instead, in the past year it's become an
obsession of the religious right, with groups like the Christian
Coalition, Concerned Women of America, the Traditional Values Coalition
and the American Center for Law and Justice -- Pat Robertson's legal arm
-- busily circulating petitions, running Op-Eds and lobbying Congress.
Now the bill that once seemed like a far-right pipe dream has 128
co-sponsors in the House, including six Democrats, and people on both
sides of the issue are expecting it come up for a vote this month.
Of course, passage is still highly doubtful. Because
Jones is planning to use a procedural maneuver to get a floor vote
without going through the committee process (where the bill would likely
stall), it needs to garner two-thirds of the House to pass. There's a
companion bill in the Senate, introduced by Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., but
that will have a much harder time getting a hearing, given the chamber's
Democratic leadership. Even mainstream religious sentiment is strongly
against it -- according to a 2001 Gallup poll, 77 percent of clergy
believes houses of worship should not be involved with political
endorsements. Dozens of religious groups, including the Baptist Joint
Committee on Public Affairs, the Presbyterian Church Washington Office,
the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Congress of National
Black Churches, have signed a letter to Congress denouncing the Jones
bill, saying, "Tying churches to partisan activity demeans the
institutions from which so many believers expect unimpeachable
With success so unlikely, many observers believe the
right's real agenda is to force a vote on a hot-button issue it can use
to bludgeon opposition candidates in close races. After all, no
politician wants to be known as an opponent of free speech for churches
-- as those who vote "no" on the bill will surely be depicted.
"I think it will be a fairly difficult vote for
some moderate conservatives," says Jim Backlin, director of
legislative affairs at the Christian Coalition. If they vote no,
"conservative, pro-family challengers will use that negative vote
against them in political advertisements."
Still, no one can discount the possibility of the
bill's passing -- after all, no one believed it would get this far.
"The first time that I heard about this legislation I
laughed," says the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Louisiana Baptist
preacher and executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, a group of
moderate clergy. "I thought someone was playing a joke. Then when I
saw the number of co-sponsors the bill had when it went to committee, I
was stunned." If passed, the Alliance says, "it could hand the
religious-right lobby their biggest win in years."
Christian-right groups have framed the bill in terms
of free speech, and they're not entirely wrong. There are constitutional
issues when any kind of speech by religious figures, including
endorsements, is banned. That's why the ACLU has pitched its criticism
of the act very narrowly. Rather than tackling the free-speech issues,
it objects to the fact that the law would grant religious groups
benefits denied to secular nonprofits.
Tax-exempt organizations can't divert funds to
political candidates or use the pulpit to endorse specific candidates.
This applies equally to all nonprofits. If a group like NOW or the
Christian Coalition wants to get involved in electioneering, as opposed
to issue-based activism, it has to set up a political action committee
with finances that are kept separate from its nonprofit work. Jones'
bill would let churches do what their nonprofit brethren can't.
"If the approach [of the bill] was broader, the
discussion would be different," says Schroeder. "These
free-speech issues are very complicated and we take them
Yet supporters have been enormously deceptive about
the limitations placed on churches' speech. In a May press release,
Concerned Women for America insists that religious leaders can't
"speak about important moral issues without fear of being stripped
of their tax-exempt status." In the Washington Times on
Sunday, Jones was quoted saying, "Our churches and synagogues are
denied their First Amendment rights in this country, at least when it
involves political issues." According to the story, "Mr. Jones
said some religious leaders are scared to state from the pulpit a
candidate's stance on abortion or related issues."
Under current law, nonprofits can freely and publicly
advocate on behalf of issues and philosophies, and people like Jerry
Falwell and Pat Robertson do so routinely. But under the Jones bill,
religious organizations would be spared the constraints applied to
ordinary nonprofits. Charitable offerings could go into campaign
coffers, and televangelists could use their shows to solicit campaign
donations. Churchgoers could find voter guides tucked into the hymnbooks
Under the law, says Elliott Mincberg, legal director
of the civil liberties advocacy group People for the American Way,
"each church essentially becomes a mini-political action
committee." For example, a pastor could use his taxpayer-subsidized
platform to announce, "Vote for Clinton and roast in hell."
In fact, a pastor at the Church at Pierce Creek in
Binghamton, N.Y., did something similar 10 years ago, and his church
lost its tax-exempt status, sparking the current crusade against the
Internal Revenue code. In 1992, the church, home base of Operation
Rescue founder Randall Terry, took out a full-page ad in USA Today
and the Washington Times warning that Clinton's policies were
"in rebellion to God's laws," boldly saying at the bottom,
"[T]ax-deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted.
Make donations to: The Church at Pierce Creek." The IRS offered to
let the church off with a warning if it would promise to stop
politicking, but the church, with the support of the American Center for
Law and Justice, refused and went to court. The church lost in federal
court and again, unanimously, in federal appeals court. Since the law
was so unequivocal, the Christian right set about to change it.
"Virtually anyone who is thinking about this particular issue
refers back to that church," says Backlin. "It became a fairly
Backlin is right -- Pierce Creek is the touchstone
case. But for mainstream religious leaders, it's not an example, it's a
warning. The general counsel for Baptist Joint Committee, K. Hollyn
Hollman, recently wrote of how supporters of the Jones bill depict
Pierce Creek's loss of tax-exempt status as "an evil in need of
correction." Instead, Hollman wrote, "the Church at Pierce
Creek incident is a telling example of the cheap and divisive campaigns
these bills would encourage."