House Republican leaders have tacked on to a major jobs bill a provision that would give religious leaders more freedom to engage in partisan politics without endangering the tax-exempt status of their churches.
Conservative Christian groups have been pushing for such legislation for years, while civil liberties organizations and religious minorities have opposed it. But unlike past proposals, which were stand-alone bills, the current provision is attached to a huge tax bill that House leaders have placed on a fast track for consideration.
A spokeswoman for the House Ways and Means Committee, Christin Tinsworth, said the provision was inserted in the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 at the request of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) because "this is an election year and there are not many bills that will become law this year." Hastert's office did not respond to repeated calls Monday and yesterday seeking comment.
The provision's conservative Christian backers, including the Southern Baptist Convention, say selective enforcement by the IRS has had a "chilling effect" on evangelical churches. Some also say the tax code, which was changed in 1954 to prohibit churches from engaging in partisan activity, has deprived religious groups of their historical place in U.S. politics.
But the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the latest legislation a "back-door attempt" to revise tax laws to help President Bush's reelection campaign.
Last week, Americans United made public an e-mail from the Bush-Cheney campaign seeking to identify 1,600 "friendly congregations" in Pennsylvania. Campaign officials acknowledged that similar efforts are underway across the country as Bush seeks to take advantage of what political strategists call the religion gap: Polls show that frequent churchgoers overwhelmingly vote Republican.
Under current tax rules, clergy members are allowed to speak out on political issues and to lead nonpartisan voter registration drives. But the IRS can revoke a congregation's 501(c)3 tax-exempt status if it endorses candidates or engages in partisan politics.
The American Jobs Creation Act, introduced Friday by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), is scheduled for markup Thursday and a vote on the House floor next week. The bill's main purpose is to cut the top corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 32 percent and provide other tax relief to businesses, in return for repealing subsidies that have triggered European sanctions on U.S. farmers and manufacturers.
But on page 378 of the bill is a provision entitled "Safe Harbor for Churches." It would allow clergy members to engage in political activity, including endorsing candidates, as long as they make clear that they are acting as private citizens and not on behalf of their religious organizations. They could not make partisan political statements in church publications, at church functions or using church funds.
The provision also would allow clergy members to commit three "unintentional violations" of the tax rules on political activity each year without risking the loss of tax-exempt status. After the first violation, the church, synagogue or mosque would have to pay corporate taxes on one week's worth of its annual revenue. For the second violation, the penalty would be taxation of 50 percent of the organization's annual revenue. The penalty for the third violation would be taxation of a year's revenue, but not permanent loss of its tax exemption.
The bill does not go as far as a proposal made two years ago by Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), which would have explicitly allowed religious groups to endorse candidates and spend money to help elect them.