NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Opening the Pulpit to Politics

June 10, 2002

A bill proposed by Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC), the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, would prevent religious groups from losing tax exempt status by participating in political campaigns or endorsing candidates.

  • Jones alleges the Internal Revenue Service more often polices churches with conservative ties rather than liberal ones -- especially black churches that invite Democrats to their pulpits.
  • And in fact, the IRS relies on citizen complaints to enforce the amendment -- and virtually all come from the left.
  • Proponents of the rule change argue the vague IRS standard for fact-finding permits investigators too much discretion, and believe the bill would end uncertainty and anxiety for the churches by spelling out what was allowed.

It would not totally relax the restrictions. Rather, it would permit political involvement as long as the institution didn't spend more than 5 percent of the its time, money and personnel on lobbying. However, even this mild reform could run into trouble in the Supreme Court, observers say, because it wouldn't pass muster under the 1989 Texas Monthly v. Bullock ruling.

  • The magazine challenged a state law that exempted religious publications from sales taxes.
  • The Court ruled the law violated the First Amendment ban on establishing religion.
  • The decision -- which traces its heritage to a landmark 1947 First Amendment decision denying the government to "aid all religion" -- would likely guide a majority on the current Court to strike down the Jones bill, observers believe.

Of course, houses of worship can engage in all the politicking they want now -- they just have to be willing to pay taxes should the IRS look their way.

Source: Terry Eastland, "Politics in the Pulpit," Weekly Standard, June 3, 2002


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