Before Congress left town Friday for its Fourth of July recess, Rep. Bill Thomas of California pulled off one of his patented legislative assassinations. Washington's most cunning parliamentarian and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Thomas eradicated the Freedom of Speech in Churches Act without openly opposing it. In the process, he fired an early shot in a destructive civil war looming for Republicans.

The bill would stop the Internal Revenue Service from using existing statutes to muzzle clergymen who talk politics in their churches. That stoppage is pressed by Christian conservatives, who say they have been discriminated against by federal enforcers. While the free-speech initiative is supported by Republican leaders, Thomas made short work of it. He transformed the proposal into a hybrid that neither friend nor foe could support.

Thomas has brought into the open internecine warfare posing grave dangers to the Republican Party. A 13-term congressman who is the party boss of Bakersfield, Calif., he represents old-line Republicans who resent Christian conservatives entering their party in 1980 (and giving the GOP parity with Democrats). Efforts to expel these intruders will reach fever pitch next year if George W. Bush is defeated.

This specific fight's origins date to 1954, when Senate Democratic leader Lyndon B. Johnson, unduly concerned about the threat to his reelection from right-wing political groups, passed a bill barring political activity by tax-exempt organizations. In time, this was broadened to keep churches out of politics.

That aspiration sounds comical to me after years of following Democratic candidates into inner-city churches on Sunday mornings to hear them endorsed by black clergymen. This activity never incurs the wrath of Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Instead, Lynn pesters the IRS about conservatives in church as he did in a May 27 letter to the agency. It claimed Bishop Michael J. Sheridan's May 1 pastoral letter "jeopardized the tax-exempt status" of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs by praising politicians opposed to abortion.

Such censorship alarmed Walter Jones, a Republican businessman and a devout Catholic from Farmville, N.C., when he was elected to Congress in 1994. Correcting unintended consequences of LBJ's 1954 legislation became Jones's top priority. He introduced his bill in 2001, the year Thomas took over Ways and Means.

Thomas as chairman blocked an easy path to the floor for Jones's bill. It reached the floor Oct. 1, 2002, under the procedure requiring two-thirds approval. Despite support for it from their party's leadership, 46 Republicans -- Thomas included -- voted no and prevented even a simple majority. They represent a bloc of Republicans, from the corporate boardroom to the country club, who despise the religious right.

This year, the indefatigable Jones managed to get his religious free-speech proposal imbedded in tax legislation that has to be passed to stop trade retaliation by the European Union. Everybody was on board: Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie -- everybody, that is, except Thomas.

The Ways and Means chairman practiced his customary sorcery. The straightforward Jones language was transmuted into a maze of words that lawyers for conservative organizations say would keep the muzzle on preachers. Jones, with the backing of Hastert, added 28 words to the Thomas language to restore his original meaning. Thomas pulled the 28 words out of the final version. Thomas explained it this way to me: "It seems that neither side liked what I had done." That killed the whole issue. Thomas did not seem unhappy about it, but the speaker was furious.

Thomas is a secularist who in the past jousted with a fellow senior Republican, Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, a prominent Catholic layman, over federal aid to Catholic hospitals. A former college professor, Bill Thomas is entitled to his own views. But today's Republican Party relies on support not from secular Americans but from church-goers. Walter Jones, not intimidated by Thomas, told me: "Discretionary enforcement, primarily against conservative churches, of an unenforceable law is wrong and should not stand." That is a battle cry for the coming Republican civil war.

{copy} 2004 Creators Syndicate Inc.