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 Washington Notebook

May 19, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 19

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"I can see the Lord's hand in this."

Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC),
sponsor of the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act


Catholic congressman pushes for repeal of ban on church partisan activity

By Joe Feuerherd

In return for a federal tax exemption, churches agree not to participate in "partisan" political activity. But one person's partisanship is another's "educational initiative" and the lines between the two, not to mention First Amendment protections of free speech and religion, can get fuzzy. Particularly in an election year.

That's one reason the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recently issued a 10,000-word document, Political Activity Guidelines for Catholic Organizations. It's a comprehensive list of do's and don'ts for church entities that want to be engaged in the issues of the day without jeopardizing the church's tax exemption.

Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) wants to make the need for such a document a thing of the past. The five-term representative's "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" would allow priests, ministers, rabbis and imams to cross a 50-year-old line forbidding partisan activity by tax-exempt religious institutions. Under the legislation, a member of the clergy could stand in the pulpit, have literature distributed, or organize the congregation with an explicit message of "Vote for Bush" or "Vote for Kerry."

Jones' legislation was approved by the House last session, but didn't make it through the Senate. This year Jones, a Catholic convert, hopes to attach the legislation to a larger must-pass bill to avoid a straight up-or-down Senate vote. He's optimistic about the strategy. "We're on the 10 yard line," he told NCR.

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Jones' arguments are four-fold. First, he said, the restriction on partisan activities by churches was put in place 50 years ago by then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who added the prohibition as an amendment to that year's tax bill. Johnson's intent, says Jones, was to limit the activities of Texas non-profit groups organized to oppose his re-election, not to limit political activity by churches.

Next, he views the prohibitions on partisan activity as an affront to First Amendment free speech protections. Church leaders should not have to pull their punches from the pulpit, says Jones.

Third, says Jones, "there is a double standard" because "most of the African-American churches talk about these issues" without retribution from the IRS ("and I don't blame them for it"), while other churches are restrained. "We should let all the churches have the same right," says Jones.

Finally, says Jones, nothing less than the future of the country is at stake. If the legislation is not passed, he says, it is possible that we will see "the end of morality [in the U.S.] in the next 10 years." Asks Jones: "How are you going to have morality in this country when you have a priest afraid to say that George W. Bush is pro-life?"

Jones' measure has its share of detractors. "Religious charities should not be given the special privilege of endorsing candidates while other charities are prohibited from doing so," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The legislation, says Lynn, "encourages churches to become cogs in a political machine, which does not serve either the church or the political system."

Further, says Lynn, Jones' approach to getting the partisan prohibition repealed should be subject to fuller scrutiny. "An idea of this significance shouldn't be cowardly added to some other piece of legislation. People should have to vote up-or-down on this horrendous idea."

Finally, says Lynn, the idea that Johnson's amendment wasn't intended to restrict church partisan activities is incorrect. "It was a quite intended consequence which remains a bulwark protecting the moral integrity of the church and the political system."

At the April 28 National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Jones urged the 1,000-plus attendees to contact their member of congress in support of the bill. Church leaders throughout the country have written or called their representatives. "I can see the Lord's hand in this," says Jones.

Congress is headed for an election-year legislative train wreck. Funding bills and tax measures are stalled, little is being accomplished, and members want to spend as much time as possible at home campaigning. Like last fiscal year, there will likely be a large omnibus appropriations bill passed in the fall just to keep the government running.

It's precisely the type of environment in which a measure that would radically alter the way church and state interact could be added to a larger bill and become law. After all, Lyndon Johnson did it 50 years ago.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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