Lawmaker Hopes to Open Churches to Political Speech

As one pastor resigned this week amid a firestorm over the role of politics in his Baptist church, a U.S. congressman continues to try to make it easier for religious leaders and their congregations to engage in partisan political activity on the church's time and dime.

Rev. Chan Chandler (search) resigned his post as pastor of the Waynesville Baptist Church (search) in North Carolina on Tuesday after nine members accused him of leading other members to push them out because they didn't agree with his pro-Republican views.

Chandler has denied claims that the nine were voted out because of their political views, but his detractors said they were tired of his politically-flavored sermons and claimed that he was intent on politicizing the church, even calling on members who supported Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election to "repent or resign."

While the North Carolina case may appear extreme, it touches on a long-standing debate over whether religious leaders and members of a church can use houses of worship and church resources to engage in partisan activity.

Current law dictating tax-exempt organizations, including churches, says they may not. However, a Republican lawmaker says proposed changes to that law are gaining momentum on Capitol Hill.

"Each year we get more and more sponsors and I think there is more interest in this issue than has ever been," said Rep. Walter Jones (search) of North Carolina, who for the fourth time has introduced a bill relaxing restrictions on political speech in churches.

The six-term representative said the political climate has become more amenable to changes because of concern over gay marriage and other hot-button political issues that have mobilized Christian conservatives across the country.

"My whole contention is that I believe — and I am very strong in my faith — that if we do not allow freedom of speech to be expressed in our houses of worship, you will have people in the state legislatures and Congress who have no respect for the Bible or the Torah" or other religious beliefs, Jones told

Jones' bill, the "Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005," introduced in January, is now before the House Ways and Means Committee. It would amend the Internal Revenue Code (search) to allow religious organizations and houses of worship to engage in "religious free exercise and free speech activities" without violating their tax-exempt status as nonprofit groups. They would still be bound by campaign finance laws that restrict tax-exempt groups, however.

Currently, tax-exempt organizations cannot engage in partisan activity, including direct endorsements or opposition to particular candidates. This has been interpreted by the Internal Revenue Service to prohibit such speech from the pulpit, in mailings and other literature paid for by the church and representing the church, and other activities clearly signaling a preference by the church for one candidate over the other.

Jones and the bill's supporters, which include a host of conservative and Evangelical Christian churches and organizations, say religious leaders had the right to express political preferences and engage in direct endorsement of candidates from the pulpit before 1954, when the current law went into effect.

"Let's take a look at our Constitution — it says ‘freedom of speech,'" said William Murray, president of the Washington D.C.-based Religious Freedom Coalition. "It doesn't say ‘freedom of speech unless you are in church on Sunday.' (Opponents) want to pass laws that say when we have freedom of speech and what we can say and society doesn't have a problem with that?"

Despite the push for a change, a September Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll found Americans sharply divided over whether they wanted their religious leaders to get directly involved in politics.

Critics of the bill, who have been largely successful in foiling Jones' previous efforts, said giving tax breaks to churches who endorse or denounce specific candidates violates the doctrine of separation of church and state and is unfair to other nonprofits that are bound by the same restrictions.

"If a church wants to be a political organization, let them pay taxes," said Caroline McKnight, spokeswoman for the MAINstream Coalition, a Kansas-based nonprofit dedicated to "preserving constitutional freedoms which are threatened by political extremists."

McKnight said her group began monitoring congressional efforts to change the law after a local Baptist church was questioned for distributing voter guides endorsing specific candidates last year.

"It's part of a concerted effort to use churchgoers for politics," she said of Jones' bill.

"Either you believe that a church should be inviolate from these kinds of political activities or you prefer, that in the four weeks leading up to the primaries or the general election, not to hear a sermon, but to hear how to vote. Is that what you want?" she asked.

Tax-exempt status revocations are rare, but do happen. In 1995, the Church at Pierce Creek (search) in upstate New York had its status revoked after sponsoring a newspaper ad calling for the defeat of presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992.

Complaints and investigations are more commonplace and often target churches on both sides of the ideological spectrum. In, February the IRS announced it is investigating the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church (search) in Florida, based on a complaint by Americans for the Separation of Church and State.

The group said the church was in violation of IRS law when it allowed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and Rev. Al Sharpton to make their pitch for Kerry to the predominantly black congregants during an August service. The pastor had introduced Kerry as "the next president of the United States."

In May, Americans for the Separation of Church of State filed a complaint alleging that Bishop Michael Sheridan of the Colorado Springs Roman Catholic Diocese (search) violated the law when he sent parishioners a letter setting forth a litmus test for politicians seeking the Catholic vote. The complaint charged the letter pressured parishioners to vote Republican.

"I think we are overreaching when we say that the church cannot speak its moral conscience," said Bishop Harold Calvin Ray of the Redemptive Life Fellowship Church (search) in Florida. He said he opposes IRS guidelines that constitute "code words" like "abortion" and "pro-life" as political speech.

He added, however, that he doesn't agree that pastors ought to be endorsing specific candidates. "I don't believe that unfettered political commentary would be in the best interest of the church."

But supporters of Jones' bill are growing, an aide in his office said. Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., have also expressed interest in supporting similar measures in the Senate.

"For too long, we have slowly allowed our voices to be silenced on imperative issues that directly harm our individual well-being and that of society," Brownback told

Opponents add that the bill would give churches and organizations a back-door for political fund-raising, though Jones said he has included language underscoring that the new law would not free entities from campaign finance laws that limit contributions to candidates.

On the other hand, Murray said his group doesn't like the campaign finance language because it could serve to stifle speech even more. He said his group will hold off support for Jones' bill until it is modified.

Sources from the House Ways and Means Committee said no schedule is set to take up Jones' bill. The most recent House vote on Jones' proposal came in 2002, at which time it was defeated 239 to 178, with 46 Republicans voting against it. Jones said he hopes to have better luck this time.

"This is one of those issues where it is hard for me to say it's going to happen, but it's also hard to say it's not going to happen," he said.