GOP Seeks Pulpit Political Leeway; House Bill Would Ease Law Defining Church Tax exemption.(NATION)

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House Republicans want to move legislation that would give churches more leeway to engage in political activities and make political statements from the pulpit while maintaining tax-exempt status.

The House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee held a hearing on two measures that would alter tax law to increase the amount of political activity churches can engage in.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, endorsed the idea yesterday as something he would like the House to take up this year. Mr. Armey has co-sponsored one of the bills, introduced by Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., North Carolina Republican. Mr. Jones said he is working with senators on the issue as well.

Under a law enacted in 1954, churches and other tax-exempt organizations are barred from participating in political campaigns by endorsing or opposing any political candidate or contributing to them. And no substantial part of the churches' activities can involve lobbying on legislation.

D. James Kennedy, senior minister of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., told the panel that "free speech seems to be protected everywhere except in the pulpits of churches and other houses of worship."

Colby M. May, director of the Washington office of the American Center for Law and Justice, said conservative churches have faced punishment from the Internal Revenue Service, while more liberal churches have repeatedly hosted Democratic candidates and political leaders with no consequences.

"The IRS uses its authority selectively to target only those it wishes to silence or threaten," Mr. May said. He cited the case of an evangelical church in upstate New York that had its tax-exempt status revoked after it ran a newspaper ad in 1992, urging people to vote against Gov. Bill Clinton for his positions on abortion and homosexuality.

Mr. Kennedy said current law is vague and unfair, resulting in confusion and fear among clergy. …