Mixing God and politics

Congress is voting on a bill to let religious leaders endorse candidates from the pulpit. The right can't lose: If it fails, they'll have a campaign issue to use against opponents in November.

Published September 4, 2002 11:50PM (EDT)

On Sept. 11 last year, Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., introduced a bill that would allow churches, temples, mosques and other houses of worship to channel donations directly to political campaigns, and to use church resources to help elect or defeat specific candidates without losing their tax-exempt status.

Not surprisingly, given the timing, no one noticed. Even once the dust cleared from the terror attacks, the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, which would dramatically increase the role of religion in politics and undermine much campaign-finance reform, has been little covered in the mainstream media. Civil liberties watchdog groups "thought it was dead," says Terri Schroeder, legislative analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.

It wasn't. Instead, in the past year it's become an obsession of the religious right, with groups like the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women of America, the Traditional Values Coalition and the American Center for Law and Justice -- Pat Robertson's legal arm -- busily circulating petitions, running Op-Eds and lobbying Congress. Now the bill that once seemed like a far-right pipe dream has 128 co-sponsors in the House, including six Democrats, and people on both sides of the issue are expecting it come up for a vote this month.

Of course, passage is still highly doubtful. Because Jones is planning to use a procedural maneuver to get a floor vote without going through the committee process (where the bill would likely stall), it needs to garner two-thirds of the House to pass. There's a companion bill in the Senate, introduced by Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., but that will have a much harder time getting a hearing, given the chamber's Democratic leadership.

Even mainstream religious sentiment is strongly against it -- according to a 2001 Gallup poll, 77 percent of clergy believes houses of worship should not be involved with political endorsements. Dozens of religious groups, including the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the Presbyterian Church Washington Office, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Congress of National Black Churches, have signed a letter to Congress denouncing the Jones bill, saying, "Tying churches to partisan activity demeans the institutions from which so many believers expect unimpeachable decency."

With success so unlikely, many observers believe the right's real agenda is to force a vote on a hot-button issue it can use to bludgeon opposition candidates in close races. After all, no politician wants to be known as an opponent of free speech for churches -- as those who vote "no" on the bill will surely be depicted.

"I think it will be a fairly difficult vote for some moderate conservatives," says Jim Backlin, director of legislative affairs at the Christian Coalition. If they vote no, "conservative, pro-family challengers will use that negative vote against them in political advertisements."

Still, no one can discount the possibility of the bill's passing -- after all, no one believed it would get this far. "The first time that I heard about this legislation I laughed," says the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Louisiana Baptist preacher and executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, a group of moderate clergy. "I thought someone was playing a joke. Then when I saw the number of co-sponsors the bill had when it went to committee, I was stunned." If passed, the Alliance says, "it could hand the religious-right lobby their biggest win in years."

Christian-right groups have framed the bill in terms of free speech, and they're not entirely wrong. There are constitutional issues when any kind of speech by religious figures, including endorsements, is banned. That's why the ACLU has pitched its criticism of the act very narrowly. Rather than tackling the free-speech issues, it objects to the fact that the law would grant religious groups benefits denied to secular nonprofits.

Tax-exempt organizations can't divert funds to political candidates or use the pulpit to endorse specific candidates. This applies equally to all nonprofits. If a group like NOW or the Christian Coalition wants to get involved in electioneering, as opposed to issue-based activism, it has to set up a political action committee with finances that are kept separate from its nonprofit work. Jones' bill would let churches do what their nonprofit brethren can't.

"If the approach [of the bill] was broader, the discussion would be different," says Schroeder. "These free-speech issues are very complicated and we take them seriously."

Yet supporters have been enormously deceptive about the limitations placed on churches' speech. In a May press release, Concerned Women for America insists that religious leaders can't "speak about important moral issues without fear of being stripped of their tax-exempt status." In the Washington Times on Sunday, Jones was quoted saying, "Our churches and synagogues are denied their First Amendment rights in this country, at least when it involves political issues." According to the story, "Mr. Jones said some religious leaders are scared to state from the pulpit a candidate's stance on abortion or related issues."

Under current law, nonprofits can freely and publicly advocate on behalf of issues and philosophies, and people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson do so routinely. But under the Jones bill, religious organizations would be spared the constraints applied to ordinary nonprofits. Charitable offerings could go into campaign coffers, and televangelists could use their shows to solicit campaign donations. Churchgoers could find voter guides tucked into the hymnbooks on Sunday.

Under the law, says Elliott Mincberg, legal director of the civil liberties advocacy group People for the American Way, "each church essentially becomes a mini-political action committee." For example, a pastor could use his taxpayer-subsidized platform to announce, "Vote for Clinton and roast in hell."

In fact, a pastor at the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., did something similar 10 years ago, and his church lost its tax-exempt status, sparking the current crusade against the Internal Revenue code. In 1992, the church, home base of Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, took out a full-page ad in USA Today and the Washington Times warning that Clinton's policies were "in rebellion to God's laws," boldly saying at the bottom, "[T]ax-deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted. Make donations to: The Church at Pierce Creek." The IRS offered to let the church off with a warning if it would promise to stop politicking, but the church, with the support of the American Center for Law and Justice, refused and went to court. The church lost in federal court and again, unanimously, in federal appeals court.

Since the law was so unequivocal, the Christian right set about to change it. "Virtually anyone who is thinking about this particular issue refers back to that church," says Backlin. "It became a fairly famous church."

Backlin is right -- Pierce Creek is the touchstone case. But for mainstream religious leaders, it's not an example, it's a warning. The general counsel for Baptist Joint Committee, K. Hollyn Hollman, recently wrote of how supporters of the Jones bill depict Pierce Creek's loss of tax-exempt status as "an evil in need of correction." Instead, Hollman wrote, "the Church at Pierce Creek incident is a telling example of the cheap and divisive campaigns these bills would encourage."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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