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GOP plan to ease law on political speech from the pulpit gets lukewarm reception

William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Religious News

WASHINGTON -- Faith-based leaders and political conservatives are annoyed that a provision in the House Republican tax bill that seeks to roll back a law preventing houses of worship from endorsing political candidates doesn't go far enough.

The provision, tucked into the back of the 429-page GOP bill, appears to allow political speech from the pulpit, some faith-based leaders said, but question what is allowed beyond that.

The issue involves the 1954 measure authored by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas that prevents tax-exempt entities such as churches, mosques and synagogues from participating in political activities. Repealing the Johnson amendment has been a goal for years among some religious leaders, especially those with conservative leanings. It was one of President Donald Trump's major campaign promises in 2016.

The new proposal would not penalize houses of worship "solely because of the content of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings."

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., whose been trying to kill the Johnson amendment for more than 10 years, chastised Republican tax writers for trying to tweak it instead of striking it altogether.

"The only way to really bring freedom of speech to houses of worship is to repeal it," Jones said. "Anytime it's in the tax code then the Internal Revenue Service can look into it at any time. And that's the problem with this. I said that to Kevin Brady months ago."

Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, hailed the provision as a step in the right direction in assuring that houses of worship can express themselves without fear of government reprisal.

"We don't need to protect government from our faith leaders," Brady said. "We need to protect faith leaders from government."

Tami Fitzgerald, North Carolina Values Coalition executive director, called the provision a good first step but added that "It could go further."

She called it "limited in scope to religious services or gatherings and homilies, sermons, and teachings by someone in the pulpit. As I read it, it excludes organizations like mine."

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