Church leaders, in order to protect their tax-exempt status, are currently prohibited by law from taking sides in a political debate. But North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones' bill - the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005 -- would change the Internal Revenue Service code. Similar legislation may be sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback.
"Whatever God puts in the minister's heart to say, he is protected by the First Amendment if this becomes law," " Jones told Cybercast News Service . This is the fourth time such a bill has been introduced in the House.
Jones said churches "have a special place in America," and should be freed from some rules typically applying to tax-exempt organizations. "When the churches qualified for a 501(c)3 (the IRS's classification for tax-exempt organizations) back in the late 30s, early 40s, there was never any restriction of speech on them -- nothing, absolutely zero."
Restrictions on political speech for tax-exempt groups were imposed in 1954 under an amendment to the tax code proposed by Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, who went on to serve as vice president and then president after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
Coburn said those rules violate the Constitution. He said the First Amendment exists "to protect two vital freedoms: speech about political subjects and religious worship. Those who want to silence religious leaders have turned the Constitution on its head."
If Jones' bill becomes law, pastors would be able to discuss political issues and explicitly endorse candidates from the pulpit, so long as church money, which remains tax-exempt, wasn't used to distribute political or campaign messages.
But Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the relevant debate is not over the freedom of religious leaders to address political issues. Instead, he said, it concerns whether tax-exempt organizations should be allowed to campaign.
Boston said he doesn't think the current regulations "in any way stifle a church's ability to discuss compelling issues of the day like gay marriage and gun control and abortion.
"That's all protected," Boston said. "They just have to stop short at telling people who to vote for or not to vote for."
Boston said that if churches can't resist endorsing candidates, they can forego their tax-exempt status. "There are organizations designed for that type of overt political activity called political action committees," he said. "Non-profits, because they enjoy the incredible benefit of tax-exempt status, are not supposed to involved themselves directly in partisan politics."
Boston emphasized that the rules against campaigning apply to all tax-exempt groups, not just churches.
Jones said he's "not concerned" about other 501(c)3 groups. "I'm concerned about protecting Judeo-Christian principles," he said, "and the spiritual leaders and the churches of this country and synagogues should have the First Amendment right returned that they had prior to 1954."
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