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.

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.

In another case, the pastor and former congressman Floyd Flake told the Wall Street Journal he was visited by IRS agents after endorsing Al Gore in 2000 from his pulpit at the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. Flake signed a statement saying he understands the rules and will not violate them again.

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.

Candidates and campaigns might reap a much larger windfall than pastors or houses of worship, said Wilcox. Partisan organizations could organize as houses of worship, thereby gaining tax-exempt status without any restrictions on their political activities. "This would be the new campaign-finance loophole," like the so-called 527s that are active in the current election, he noted.

Even if not going that far, political operatives would have "incentives to use churches as a means to funnel campaign funds into politics, bypassing the campaign-finance laws," said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

"In this context, the lives of pastors might change a lot, as would the lives of congregations," he said. "And politics might well become more polarized as religious communities become more polarized."

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