Southern Baptists Drop Support Of Church Electioneering Bill

U.S. Rep. Walter Jones’s effort to allow churches to endorse candidates while keeping their tax exemption has suffered a setback with the withdrawal of support from an influential backer.

Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, announced in late April that the denominational agency could no longer support the latest version of Jones’s bill. According to an article from Baptist Press News, the revised measure increases “the likelihood of government intervention in churches and other religious bodies.”

Jones, a North Carolina Republican, has pushed a bill in several sessions of Congress that would do away with the federal tax law’s ban on church electioneering. Pursuant to the Internal Revenue Service Code, both secular and religious nonprofits are prohibited from endorsing candidates for public office or using their resources to intervene in a political campaign. (Nonprofits are permitted to engage in issue advocacy.)

In 2002, the Jones proposal failed to pass on the floor of the House of Representatives. Since then his bill has never escaped committee. The newest version, H.R. 235, would allow church leaders to “express personal views on political matters or elections during religious services without violating campaign finance laws, as long as such views are not disseminated beyond the members and guests” at the services.

Religious Right lobbyists, including the SBC’s Land, have consistently called for the tax code to be stripped of its ban on political endorsements. The new Jones bill, as the SBC sees it, not only fails to do that, but calls for greater government oversight of church activity.

Land, in a statement reported in the BP News article, called the new bill a “grotesquely bad idea.”

“Under the new bill,” Land argues, “the government would permit churches to endorse a candidate but then would allow government investigators to come in and determine when the church has exceeded the government’s narrow parameters of permission. It gives the government foxes a hunting license to enter the churches’ hen houses, and we all know what happens when foxes get into hen houses – hens get killed, and foxes get fat.”

H.R. 235 is pending in the House Committee on Ways and Means.