The House Ways and Means Committee has killed a proposal that was intended to give clergy members freedom to endorse candidates for political office without endangering the tax-exempt status of their congregations.
The provision, titled "Safe Harbor for Churches," was removed from a corporate tax bill during a committee markup of the legislation Monday night, staff members said.
Watchdog groups -- including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Interfaith Alliance and People for the American Way -- opposed the provision as a step toward dismantling the constitutional ban on state-sponsored religion. Some also called it a "back-door" attempt to help reelect President Bush, whose campaign is focusing on churches as potential centers of support.
But the proposal's fate was sealed when religious groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, also expressed strong reservations.
In a letter to House members last week, the Rev. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, criticized the provision for making distinctions that would have required more scrutiny of churches by the Internal Revenue Service, not less. For instance, the provision would have allowed a clergy member to engage in political campaigning as a private citizen but not at "an official function" of a church.
In addition, the provision would have created a series of graduated penalties for "unintentional" violations of IRS rules against partisan activity by 501(c)3 tax-exempt institutions, while "intentional" violations would still have resulted in the revocation of a congregation's tax exemption.
Trying to make those distinctions and to determine the penalties, Land said, would require "an unacceptable intrusion of the IRS into the business of a church."
House Republican leaders had attached the proposal to H.R. 4520, the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, a bill that would eliminate some federal subsidies to manufacturers and cut corporate tax rates. The measure was removed by a voice vote on an amendment from Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.).