Washington, Oct 2--(AP) The House on Wednesday rejected a bill that would have let religious leaders talk freely about politics without endangering their organization's tax-exempt status.

The bill, which caused splits in the religious community and inside the Republican Party, was defeated on a 239-178 vote. It's main proponent, Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., told lawmakers that he will try again next year. "Today we took a very important step toward bringing freedom of speech back to our pulpits," Jones said. "From the first day of the 108th Congress, I will continue this fight because I believe this battle can be won and will be won. Congress must return First Amendment rights to our houses of worship."

The bill would have given religious leaders the right to talk about politics and make endorsements, effectively lifting the Internal Revenue Service's ban on political activity at churches, synagogues and mosques.

The issue divided lawmakers during debate Tuesday night. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said the bill would "erode the separation of church and state, a bedrock value of our nation" and would probably enable big-money donors to funnel money through churches. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said "if this legislation is allowed to pass or stand, you could have a minister coming into a pulpit and saying vote for so and so because God told me."

The bill was supported by groups such as the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and the Association of Christian Schools International, but opposed by other religious organizations. "Most Americans do not want their churches turned into smoke filled rooms where political deals are cut and partisan politics replaces worship," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "When people put their money in the collection plate, they don't expect it to be used for candidates' campaign literature and attack ads."

The prohibition on political activity was imposed in 1954 by Congress on all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations under an amendment offered by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson. Before that, religious leaders were freely involved in political debate. Religious groups and the government have locked horns over the years when it comes to politics and the Constitution's guarantees of both free speech and freedom of religion. After a decade--long battle, for example, the IRS concluded in 1999 that the Christian Coalition should not be tax-exempt because of its distribution of voter guides in churches.

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