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8.8.02

Partisan Politics From the Pulpit?

A bill that would allow houses of worship to engage in partisan politicking will face a vote in the House of Representatives in early September, observers in Washington say.

Rep. Walter B. Jones' "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357) was drafted by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice and is being aggressively pushed by numerous Religious Right organizations. The measure would change the Internal Revenue Code to allow houses of worship to use personnel and resources to endorse or oppose candidates for public office.

Federal tax law currently forbids non-profit groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in partisan campaigns if they are tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. The Jones bill would lift that regulation -- but only for houses of worship.


I'm linking to the Witchvox version of this story because I found the angle of the comments made in the discussion section interesting. (And maybe it's sneaky to be talking about them behind their back, but I don't feel like it's my place to be butting into their discussion.) It seems like their reaction -- while correctly opposed to the bill -- is backward.

The reaction on Witchvox seems to be "this is wrong because churches shouldn't be involved in politics." Now, I agree with this philosophically. And I think enough religious people in the US agree that the vast majority of religious organizations wouldn't take advantage of the bill if it were passed. But Constitutionally speaking, the argument doesn't hold up. As I see it, the intent of the First Amendment religion clauses is to prevent the government from making decisions on questions of religion. So for the government to maintain a ban on church-backed political action in order to prevent churches from getting involved in politics would be government making a decision on a question of religion (i.e., should a religious community be political). This closely parallels the (in my opinion) correct argument against this bill. What is being proposed is a special exemption for religious organizations. The government is granting a special privilege to certain organizations based on their religious nature (and thus deciding what is and isn't a religion). To pass the First Amendment test, a policy must treat organizations based on criteria other than their religiousness. Currently, all non-profit organizations -- be they sacred or secular -- follow the same rules. If you want to be tax-exempt, you have to eschew politics. Period. Repealing the political restriction on all non-profits would also be Constitutional (though not necessarily desirable, though that's a different issue). But treating religious non-profits differently from non-religious ones is clearly unconstitutional.

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