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Published: Saturday, 10/16/2004

Repeal the law that muzzles clergy

BY ROSE RUSSELL

A FEW years ago I got my knickers in a bunch about politicians going to churches to plead for votes during the campaign season.

I still maintain that politicians seeking votes at churches during worship services are disruptive. They are annoying partly because they don't return until it's election time again. And if I want to know about them, other avenues provide information.

Now, there's growing controversy about a bill in Congress that focuses on a similar issue, but with a different bent. HR 235, widely known as the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, aims to repeal a 50-year-old law that gave the Internal Revenue Service the authority to pull back or challenge the tax-exempt status of a church, temple, or mosque if the clergy are deemed to take part in political partisanship.

This all started with Lyndon Johnson. As a senator in 1954, his opponent's campaign was aided by a couple of nonprofit groups. To limit the influence, Senator Johnson pushed through an amendment that prevented tax-exempt organizations from participating in political activity. Maybe he didn't intend for the bill to affect churches, but it did, and now, any group that violates the law can lose its tax exemption.

HR 235 was introduced by Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina in early 2001. The bill is still in the House, where it has about 165 supporters. The bill's backers are mostly conservative Republicans.

Supporters say it will remove the muzzle from clergy and let them exercise the right to freely speak about political candidates and issues from pulpits. Opponents say letting spiritual leaders voice political views from the pulpit will blur the line separating church and state.

Some churches charged with violating the tax code have heard from the IRS. Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a complaint with the IRS after Pastor Ronnie Floyd at First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark. told members last July 4 to "vote God."

Although no candidate's name was mentioned, the people seemed to know what he meant. But the question is whether he exercised his First Amendment right or whether he violated the tax code. Some clergy have been more forthright, plainly telling members to vote for President Bush, or to not vote for Sen. John Kerry. One letter writer to our Readers' Forum spoke of one such incident in Sylvania.

Here's the deal: If the law remains, it's doubtful that it will be equally and fairly applied. Some say that the IRS targets conservative houses of worship. But that could change and liberal assemblies could become the focus if Mr. Bush wins.

If the law is repealed, there will be more "vote God" admonitions from many pulpits. Telling people how and who to vote for goes too far. At worship, people want to escape political cacophony. Church is not where one wants to hear the endless drone of politicking. In fact, some congregations that think the pastor goes too far with political messages can make them miserable enough to stop, or to leave. They don't need the IRS.

Yet clergy do not live in a vacuum. In addition to preaching the Gospel and tending to members' spiritual health, clergy must also call for social justice and condemn cultural wrongs. That could mean saying that the nation was misled into the war in Iraq, or saying it's wrong to let the poor fend for themselves while the pockets of the wealthy are padded.

However, there is some confusion about whether the IRS will visit pastors for such comments, or if it shows up only when they blatantly endorse candidates. That lack of clarity is reason enough for more discussion about the issue. Besides, it's a wonder this law was never previously challenged on the basis that it is wrong to take a fundamental constitutional right from some Americans.

Meanwhile, I shudder to think what state American blacks would be in today had not white abolitionists used their pulpits to convince congregations that slavery was wrong. I shudder to think what civil rights I would lack if black preachers had not inspired members to fight for civil rights.

I don't like the idea of houses of worship endorsing political candidates. But it is unfair that the First Amendment free speech rights apply to all Americans except clergy in the pulpit. It can't be both ways, and from what I understand, the Constitution prevails.



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