Bill Would Allow Church Politicking

Posted March 2, 2005 at 6:25pm

Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) plans to re-introduce a measure that would permit churches to endorse political candidates.

Jones’ bill, the “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act,” would lift the 50-year-old restriction on churches endorsing candidates for public office. That ban also applies to all nonprofit organizations, which would not be covered by the Congressman’s legislation.

Flanked by members of the clergy and colleagues at a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday afternoon, Jones predicted that the measure has a better chance than ever of passing this year. He said that rather than introduce the bill on its own, as he has in the past, he would amend it onto another piece of legislation.

“I think what we’re trying to do is look at any opportunity that would ensure the bill will pass,” Jones said in an interview after the news conference. “That could be bringing it to the floor. The other opportunity would be to take the language and put it on another bill that would go from the House to the Senate.”

But the bill is likely to encounter plenty of opposition.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, a group that promotes the separation of church and state, said that lifting the restriction would be both unwise and unconstitutional.

“Jones wants to only allow religious organizations this exemption, giving them a clear preference,” Lynn said. “What he really wants is mega churches in the South, 3,000, 4,000-member churches to be able to endorse Republicans. It’s a highly partisan maneuver.”

While acknowledging that “in principle, it’s a good idea to have a class of educating groups” that are separate from political parties and organizations, Lynn said he fears what would happen to churches if they became “embroiled in partisan politics.”

Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a Roll Call columnist, feels that making such a change “would be a terrible thing in a host of ways.”

“Once you get churches actively engaged in partisan politics, you’ll see government more involved in regulating churches,” he said. The ban “was designed to protect churches, not the state.”

Despite the ban on religious institutions making endorsements in political races, politicians frequently visit churches and synagogues, particularly during campaign season, and religious leaders are not beyond offering their blessings — without a formal endorsement.

But supporters of Jones’ legislation contend that more than just endorsements have been restricted. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said the tax code was being used to keep controversial, partisan issues from being brought up in churches.

“We have an Internal Revenue Service that … manages freedom of speech in houses of worship,” Pence said, referring to the practice of revoking tax benefits from churches that are deemed to have crossed the partisan line.

Jones echoed that sentiment.

“Why should you, if you are a minister that feels that certain people will not defend marriage, not be able to talk about that issue and say their name to your congregation?” he asked.

Lynn called that argument a smoke screen, saying there is a big difference between churches and church leaders that advocate on certain issues and those who would endorse political candidates. He said that supporters of the repeal are guilty of “constant mischaracterization of the issue. We have complained about endorsements, not issue advocacy.”

Jones has allies in both chambers. On the House side, Jones has the support of the nearly 100 members of the conservative Republican Study Committee, which Pence chairs.

In the Senate, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) is looking to attach the bill to an appropriate piece of legislation, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) supports the bill and has agreed to defend the proposal if it makes it into conference.

Brownback challenged Democrats, who are looking to burnish their credentials on “values” issues, to support the legislation.

“If the Democrats are looking for a way to reach out to members of the faith community, this is a great opportunity,” he said.