Bill seeks to allow US churches to flex political muscle - news from ekklesia

By staff writers
June 14, 2004

Bill seeks to allow US churches to flex political muscle

-14/6/04

A vote in the USA is expected imminently on a measure introduced by Republicans that would make it easier for churches to throw their weight behind individual candidates at election time, without jeopardising their tax advantages.

Representative Bill Thomas of California, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, added the measure to a much larger bill that centres on revising corporate taxes. The provision, called "Safe Harbor for Churches", would allow religious organizations a limited number of violations of the existing rules against political endorsements without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

Despite overwhelming opposition from nearly two dozen religious denominations, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom Delay ordered a version of Rep. Walter Jones's "Houses of Worship" Political Speech Restoration Act to be included on page 379 of a 398 page tax bill (H.R. 4520, American Jobs Creation Act of 2004).

But significant concern is being expressed that this is another move attempting to bolster the power and influence of churches, particularly those on the religious Right.

Such legislation would radically change the nation's historic tradition of separation of church and state and "raise moral questions about the actions of religious leaders and their congregations and disrupt the political process itself," said Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.

A statement from Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance said: "The bill encourages willful ignorance of the law by houses of worship, amending the tax code to permit churches, and only churches, to engage in political campaigns while maintaining their status as tax-exempt organizations."

Under the legislation, Gaddy noted, houses of worship would be allowed to "accidentally" endorse political candidates up to three times in an election cycle without losing their coveted tax-exempt status. While the bill purports to draw a distinction between intentional and unintentional violations of political activity, it is silent on what constitutes an "unintentional" violation, leaving religious leaders and institutions free to claim ignorance of the law as reasoning for an "unintentional" breach.

Although its chances of enactment are uncertain, Democrats and other critics of the proposal argue that its timing suggests that Republicans are trying to bend the tax rules in time to help the president's re-election campaign.

If passed in time for the election, Mr. Maffei of the Ways and Means minority staff has said, it could invite "widespread abuse" by religious leaders using their positions to support favorite candidates.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the timing "simply reeks to high heaven, literally."

Bill seeks to allow US churches to flex political muscle

-14/6/04

A vote in the USA is expected imminently on a measure introduced by Republicans that would make it easier for churches to throw their weight behind individual candidates at election time, without jeopardising their tax advantages.

Representative Bill Thomas of California, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, added the measure to a much larger bill that centres on revising corporate taxes. The provision, called "Safe Harbor for Churches", would allow religious organizations a limited number of violations of the existing rules against political endorsements without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

Despite overwhelming opposition from nearly two dozen religious denominations, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom Delay ordered a version of Rep. Walter Jones's "Houses of Worship" Political Speech Restoration Act to be included on page 379 of a 398 page tax bill (H.R. 4520, American Jobs Creation Act of 2004).

But significant concern is being expressed that this is another move attempting to bolster the power and influence of churches, particularly those on the religious Right.

Such legislation would radically change the nation's historic tradition of separation of church and state and "raise moral questions about the actions of religious leaders and their congregations and disrupt the political process itself," said Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.

A statement from Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance said: "The bill encourages willful ignorance of the law by houses of worship, amending the tax code to permit churches, and only churches, to engage in political campaigns while maintaining their status as tax-exempt organizations."

Under the legislation, Gaddy noted, houses of worship would be allowed to "accidentally" endorse political candidates up to three times in an election cycle without losing their coveted tax-exempt status. While the bill purports to draw a distinction between intentional and unintentional violations of political activity, it is silent on what constitutes an "unintentional" violation, leaving religious leaders and institutions free to claim ignorance of the law as reasoning for an "unintentional" breach.

Although its chances of enactment are uncertain, Democrats and other critics of the proposal argue that its timing suggests that Republicans are trying to bend the tax rules in time to help the president's re-election campaign.

If passed in time for the election, Mr. Maffei of the Ways and Means minority staff has said, it could invite "widespread abuse" by religious leaders using their positions to support favorite candidates.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the timing "simply reeks to high heaven, literally."

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