And it works the other way as well, with candidates courting churches and religious leaders. Black churches are regular stops for Democratic candidates, and the Bush-Cheney campaign recently sparked controversy by appealing to churches for support, including an attempt by Vice President Cheney to obtain church membership directories. These activities are all allowed under current regulations.
But there is enough ambiguity in the current rules for activists on both sides of the issue to engage in a game of "Gotcha!" over perceived infractions. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has long monitored church political activity and complained--to the churches and the IRS--when they believe the rules have been violated.
In the belief that Americans United and other groups are deliberately targeting conservative churches--while letting liberal and especially black churches off the hook--evangelicals have begun to strike back.
The conservative Religious Freedom Action Coalition recently launched the website www.ratoutachurch.org (yes, that's Rat Out a Church) to encourage people to monitor and report liberal churches that engage too deeply in political activity. The group has sent warning letters to dozens of churches and reported one to the IRS: New Birth Baptist Church, an African-American parish in Miami, which hosted former presidential candidate Al Sharpton on Aug. 29. (Americans United likewise called for IRS action against New Birth.)
The IRS would not comment on how often it has investigated or taken action for violations of existing rules. But observers say there have been few such instances, and possibly only one church has actually lost its tax-exempt status. In that case, the Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, N.Y., took out full-page newspaper ads declaring that a vote for Bill Clinton is a vote for sin.
Still, the issue has become a hot one among conservative Christians, taking on overtones far beyond the intricacies of IRS code. Many evangelicals speak of an environment of fear the restrictions have instilled in pastors.
William Murray, president of the evangelical Religious Freedom Action Coalition, called the IRS rules "one of the first steps in America toward broad censorship, toward the elimination of freedom of speech."
"It belies the entire notion that the church was part of the Civil Rights movement, the abolition movement, the universal suffrage movement, the Underground Railroad, the Revolutionary War itself," he said. "The church has had a tremendously positive impact on politics and society through politics for [the] more than 200 year existence of this country."
Jerry Falwell called recently for "an uprising of courageous pastors in America" over this issue, and Rep. Jones has reportedly called opponents of his bill "evil." The Becket Fund mailed letters to nearly 300,000 houses of worship blasting the restrictions on pastoral politicking and offering free legal counsel to anyone accused of stepping over the line.
Many supporters argue that changing the rules is nothing but a clarification--opening the door for pastors to do what they are already allowed to but are now afraid to out of fear of the IRS.
"If the churches in this country would just stand up and do what is allowed to do and speak up, they'd be a great catalyst for change," said Hiram Sasser, Director of Litigation for Liberty Legal Institute, which advocates for religious freedom. "That's the reason for changing the rules."
But, though evangelicals are fueling the drive for changing the rules, a lot of conservative churches don't really want this, said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University. "The pressure to endorse [candidates] is going to be really powerful," he said. "That might split your congregation. It might interfere with your ability to 'win souls for the Lord.'"
Many opponents of the rules change see churches and synagogues of all theological stripes as already deeply involved in political issues. Their fear, they say, comes in considering the potential consequences of the Jones bill.
In the scenarios they envision, churches will become de facto--or even actual--political action committees, and the entanglement between church and state will become absolute.
"Those [candidates] that oppose abortion will have their campaign offices in the church and those who support abortion will have their campaign offices in the church, and it would just spiral out of control," said the Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the mainline protestant National Council of Churches.