In this overheated political season, a significant change to the laws governing churches' involvement in politics is being debated out of the public eye. A 50-year-old tax-code provision is under attack, with profound implications for church-state separation.

On one side of the debate, conservative Christians argue the need to change existing law for the benefit of pastors afraid to speak out on political issues.

On the other side, liberal activists and academics say the clergy's ability to speak out on political issues is protected under current law, and argue against the proposed change, conjuring a future in which houses of worship are deeply politicized and candidates treat churches like campaign offices.

At issue is a provision in the IRS code that prohibits houses of worship from engaging in political activity; churches that violate this prohibition risk losing their tax-exempt status. The delicate church-state balance established by this rule could change dramatically in the coming weeks, possibly even before November's elections. And it could happen without the benefit of Congressional debate.

Under current law, tax-exempt nonprofits, including churches, synagogues, and mosques, may not, according to IRS rules, endorse candidates or "intervene in political campaigns" and may not spend "a substantial part of [their] activity" lobbying or otherwise "attempting to influence legislation."

Evangelicals and conservative Christians, who have long hated these restrictions, are driving the proposed change, believing that the rule deprives pastors of their right to speak their conscience and guide their flocks on political issues. Supporters of the status quo, however, warn that changing the rule threatens to politicize churches to the point where they become just another interest group with which politicians trade pork for votes.

The current rules have been in place since 1954, when then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson added without discussion an amendment to tax-code legislation restricting political activity by nonprofits, an under-the-radar move that conservative Christians believe ushered in an era of religious persecution.

Now in a similar under-the-radar strategy, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert have joined with chief sponsor Rep. Walter Jones, R-NC, in attempting to attach the so-called Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act (Jones bill/HR 235) to the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 (H.R. 4520), which has already passed the House and Senate.

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.

In addition to preaching about issues from the pulpit, pastors can get involved in campaigns and endorse candidates--but only as individuals, not as representatives of the church.