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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."

David Christensen, vice president of government affairs for the Family Research Council, a conservative group, said his organization is "glad that there's language in the tax bill to address the Johnson amendment" but added that it will probably need to be fixed.

"We think that this language may be entirely too narrow in the context of churches," Christensen said. "A newsletter, being on a radio program or a TV program, it's not clear to us if any type of campaign speech would be protected in that context."

Christensen said the Family Research Council would prefer to see the bill embrace the legislation introduced in February by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.

 

Their Free Speech Fairness Act would amend the tax code and allow charitable organizations to make statements relating to political campaigns if the comments are made in the ordinary course of the organization carrying out its tax-exempt purpose.

While some faith-based leaders and groups were disappointed in the GOP tax bill, advocates for the separation of church and state were livid about its inclusion.

"President Trump and House leadership are trying to change the tax code so they can pressure churches for endorsements, " said Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "They clearly want to use congregations as political tools for their own benefit."

Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, called the provision "political payback to the religious right for coming out in force to help elect President Trump in November."

Americans have mixed views about houses of worship delving into politics. A 2014 Pew Research poll found that almost 60 percent of Republicans thought churches should be able to express their political views, while 42 percent of Democrats agreed.

However, only 38 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of Democrats thought houses of worship should endorse political candidates.

A 2016 Pew poll of Americans who attended religious services found that 14 percent had heard clergy speak for or against one of the presidential candidates.

Nine percent of churchgoing Americans said they had heard clergy speak in favor of Democrat Hillary Clinton, while 1 percent said they had heard clergy speak favorably of Trump.

(c)2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

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