Federal tax law has been clear for decades: houses of worship cannot legally engage in partisan politicking. This simple and unambiguous provision of the Internal Revenue Code has served as a valuable safeguard for the integrity of both religious institutions and the political process.
At the same time, it has constituted a thorn in the side of many Religious Right groups and activists -- most notably Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson -- who would enjoy nothing more than turning America's churches into cogs in a larger political machine.
These foes of church-state separation have made no secret of their hostility for the law's prohibition on church electioneering. Indeed, they have tried for years to test it in court, circumvent it and, in many instances, ignore it.
More recently, Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and their allies in Congress have developed a new scheme: remove the tax provision altogether.
Currently pending in Congress are two proposals to rewrite the IRS Code and allow houses of worship to spend their resources on political candidates. The bill getting the most attention, Rep. Walter Jones' "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357), has already garnered the support of 110 cosponsors. (It was written by lawyers at Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice.)
A second measure (H.R. 2931) has been introduced by Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.).
Congress would be wise to reject these bills, for the benefit of both religious institutions and the political process.
Current restrictions on houses of worship do not exist as an impediment to religious leaders speaking out on important moral issues of the day. In fact, pastors and other religious leaders already enjoy that unencumbered right.
Rather, tax law stops churches and other tax-exempt entities from using their personnel and money to intervene in partisan political campaigns. In the process, the integrity of religious institutions is protected 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.
Houses of worship are awarded tax-exempt status because the government assumes that their work is charitable and educational, not political. To undo the restriction on church electioneering -- allowing religious groups to act as political action committees while maintaining their tax-exempt status -- would wreak havoc on the nation's campaign finance laws.
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 work on their behalf, essentially making churches part of a money-laundering scheme.
Such changes are unnecessary, and for the vast majority of religious leaders, unwanted. Despite the Religious Right's rhetoric, there is no clamor within the religious community for a radical rewrite of existing tax law. Most religious leaders already follow the IRS Code as it currently exists, and have little interest in taking on the responsibility of serving their flock as both a pastor and a political counselor simultaneously.
Some of the nation's leading authorities on religion and government have warned against politicized pulpits. Thomas Jefferson, a champion of religious liberty and church-state separation, believed that congregants expect their religious leaders to offer lessons on religion, not politics.
In 1815 Jefferson observed, "In choosing our pastor we look to his religious qualifications, without inquiring into his physical or political dogmas, with which we mean to have nothing to do." While he considered ministers to have the same rights as other citizens in their personal capacities, he regarded political statements by clergy in the pulpit to be "a breach of contract, depriving their audience of the kind of service for which they are salaried."
Federal tax law serves our nation's religious community well, preventing houses of worship from being drawn into partisan politicking. It does not need "fixing." We urge members of Congress to reject the Jones and Crane bills.