WASHINGTON – Churches that mistakenly mix religious and political activity would face reduced fines but keep their tax exempt status under a provision in a corporate tax bill the House is to consider this week.
The proposal, which could invalidate the strict separation of religion and politics in current tax laws, was introduced by House Republicans the same week President Bush's re-election campaign targeted 1,600 Pennsylvania congregations to recruit voters.
Critics fear it would give politicians a pass to flout the rules without putting religious organizations at risk.
The mammoth bill, the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 (search), would impose reduced fines against churches and other places of worship that inadvertently allow political activity on their properties more than twice a year. On the third violation, the religious organizations would lose their tax exemption for one year.
The Internal Revenue Service (search) prohibits political campaign activity, for or against any candidate, from taking place at all organizations that receive tax exempt status under a section of the federal tax code — including most churches and religious groups. Violators could lose their tax breaks and face excise taxes.
The plan "provides the IRS with a remedy short of revoking tax-exempt status," said a Republican aide to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Thomas (search) of California, who wrote the corporate tax bill, which was formally filed last Friday. Lawmakers were expected to consider the bill on Thursday and put it to a vote next week.
Critics said the plan preaches blissful ignorance that gives legal cover to violators. It is similar to a proposal by Rep. Walter Jones (search), R-N.C., that opponents fear would allow houses of worship to engage in partisan electioneering, including endorsing or opposing candidates, during religious services.
"This just basically tells churches that ignorance is the best policy," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "If you claim you don't know what the policy is, you can get away with multiple violations and dramatically reduced fines."
Lynn added: "I don't think it's any coincidence that this is being fast-tracked in Congress just days after the Bush campaign announced its outreach in churches."
Last week, the Bush campaign e-mailed Pennsylvania churchgoers to target 1,600 "Friendly Congregations" where people can register to vote and pick up political information as the election nears. But the campaign said the missive was intended only to be passed from "individual to individual" — and not from preacher to congregation.
Campaign officials said Monday they were unaware of the church provision. But spokesman Steve Schmidt accused Lynn of "an extreme position — he wants to exclude people of faith from America's civic life."
"Not only is that misguided, it's dangerous," Schmidt said. "You don't want to exclude people from the electoral process, from the democratic process. You want to include people."
"People of faith have as much right to participate in the political process as anyone else," Schmidt said.
Pennsylvania is a key political swing state that offers 21 electoral votes. Bush lost the state in 2000 by a mere 204,000 votes.