Pastor Politics

Churches endorsing candidates? It could happen, if a 50-year-old tax regulation is overturned.

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Though the issue arises just about every presidential election cycle, it has become a cause celebre for evangelicals this year, and the proposed bill has been gaining traction. Even opponents acknowledge that it will be nearly impossible to prevent the change from becoming law if it gets attached to the jobs bill. A 2002 attempt to pass HR-235 as a stand-alone bill failed.

Among religious leaders and activists on both sides of the issue, debate is loud and passionate.

"It is a first-amendment, fundamental right to preach from the pulpit any good-faith, sincerely held religious message, whether politically motivated or otherwise," said Jared N. Leland, media and legal counsel for the Becket Fund, a non-partisan public-interest law firm that handles freedom of religion cases. The organization supports changing the law because the current regulations have "a chilling effect on pastors."

Opponents of the new bill say it's essential to keep the church-state wall where it is--and warn of dire consequences for the political process if the law is changed.

"If you allow it, then there's going to be an effort to politicize every charity, religious and otherwise, anybody that's allowed to do it, in a way that I think doesn't serve the common good. It's good to have organizations that don't have to kowtow to politicians, that aren't going to give them votes in [exchange] for grant money or changes in law or anything else, that are above that partisan political fray," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.


In debating the bill, both sides invoke the Civil Rights movements. Supporters of the Jones bill say that under current restrictions, Martin Luther King Jr. would have been prevented from getting politically involved. Opponents counter that speaking out on issues--as Dr. King did--is actually allowed under current law.

Given all the heated rhetoric about muzzled ministers, what is currently allowed may seem surprisingly broad: Churches can distribute nonpartisan voter guides; conduct voter-registration drives; invite candidates to speak, so long as they give equal time to opponents; they can also invite public figures--even candidates for office--to speak in a "non-candidate capacity" without equal time for the other side.

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Michael Kress
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