Rep. Walter Jones' "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357), would remove provisions in the Internal Revenue Code that prohibit houses of worship from supporting candidates for public office. Here are some reasons why this bill, and others like it, are dangerous.
Mixing religion and partisan politics could lead to majority tyranny. Under the Jones bill, a large church, or a number of churches working together, could form a political machine. Religious groups could select candidates, direct their campaigns and essentially operate like political action committees. This would inevitably allow the largest denomination in each community to dominate political life.
A quick survey of conflict around the globe shows how dangerous it can be when religion and politics are injudiciously mixed. The last thing America needs is to take a step in that direction.
Church electioneering could lead to religious divisiveness. Allowing houses of worship to jump into partisan politics could have the unintended result of spawning political balkanization along religious lines. A Baptist church might back only Baptist candidates, a Catholic church only Catholics and so on. In a pluralistic society, this type of divisiveness will quickly sour inter-faith relations and invite contention.
Jones' bill would open a dramatic loophole in the nation's campaign finance system. Houses of worship are given tax-exempt status because the government assumes that their work is charitable, not political. As such, contributions to churches are tax deductible, while donations to political candidates and parties are not.
To undo the tax law's ban on church politicking allowing religious groups to act as political institutions while maintaining their tax-exempt status would be an invitation to wreak havoc on the nation's campaign finance system.
The likely result is unappealing, to say the least. Political parties and candidates could give generous sums of money to houses of worship, write off the donations as tax-deductible, then have the churches do political work on their behalf, essentially making churches part of a money-laundering scheme.
America's clergy have not asked for change. Despite the rhetoric from Jones and the Religious Right, leaders of the religious community are not clamoring for radical changes to existing tax law. Most clergy already follow the law as it currently exists and have little interest in taking on the responsibility of serving their flock as both a pastor and a political boss.
Houses of worship are free to speak out on public issues under existing law. Jones and other supporters of the legislation have argued this bill is necessary to allow religious leaders to speak out on issues of interest to their congregations. In one recently published commentary, Jones even said the tax code could have "silenced" the religious community on issues such as the "abolitionist and civil rights movements." This is utter nonsense.
Religious leaders have a clear legal right to use their pulpits to address moral and political issues. The only thing houses of worship may not do is endorse or oppose candidates or use tax-exempt donations to contribute to partisan campaigns. If congregations decide that they want to raise funds for campaigns and endorse candidates, they have every legal right to give up their tax exemption and create a political committee. Current law simply limits groups from being both a tax-exempt ministry and a partisan political outfit.
Current law protects the integrity of houses of worship. Existing federal tax law protects the integrity of religious institutions by keeping them focused on the principal goals of nearly every house of worship: sharing their moral and theological views and ministering to believers, not offering directions on which candidates deserve political support.
In addition, modern political campaigns can frequently be vicious exercises, where morality is often shelved until after Election Day. Tying America's churches, temples, synagogues and mosques to such activity demeans the very institutions from which so many believers expect unimpeachable decency.
Houses of worship shouldn't get special political privileges. Under current law, restrictions on partisan politicking apply equally to all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. The Jones bill seeks to change the law to allow only houses of worship to engage in partisan political efforts. This creates an unlevel playing field, in which secular charities would be denied a legal benefit offered to ministries of the exact same tax status. This favoritism raises serious legal questions about the constitutionality of Jones' proposal.
Federal tax law is serving our nation's religious community well, preventing houses of worship from being sullied by partisan politicking. With that in mind, members of Congress should leave the law alone. It does not need "fixing."