Bill Puts Political Spin on Religion Legislation Would OK Church Endorsements

By Pinzur, Matthew I. | The Florida Times Union, July 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

Bill Puts Political Spin on Religion Legislation Would OK Church Endorsements


Pinzur, Matthew I., The Florida Times Union


Byline: Matthew I. Pinzur, Times-Union staff writer

Lyndon Johnson was facing his first re-election as a U.S. senator in 1954, and he wanted more than a victory; he wanted to thrash his opponent and beat back the party's McCarthyite right flank so thoroughly that it would never challenge him again.

He finagled a bit of parliamentary guerilla warfare that not only ensured a landslide, but quietly built a new firewall between church and state.

The anti-Communist cause was supported by two powerful nonprofit groups, which dogged Johnson and other party liberals by producing Red-baiting radio shows, television programs and millions of pieces of literature.

Three weeks before the primary, he fought back. With the Senate scrambling to leave for its summer break, Johnson sent up a floor amendment that would rescind the tax-exempt status of any church, charity or other nonprofit that campaigned for or against a candidate. The amendment passed, becoming part of the Revenue Act of 1954.

"He decided to do what often has been decided by people in power that did not like the things that had been said about them," said the Rev. James Kennedy, president of Fort Lauderdale's Coral Ridge Ministries. "He decided to silence them."

Now, a bill before Congress seeks to undo a large part of the Johnson amendment by freeing churches -- but not other charities or nonprofit groups -- to participate in campaigns.

The bill, supported almost entirely by Republicans, was the subject of a May hearing before a congressional subcommittee, where Kennedy was one of eight experts to testify. No vote has been set on the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, nor has a Senate companion bill been filed, but supporters said they expect both by this fall.

RELIGION AND POLITICS

Supporters talk about restoring the church's First Amendment rights, empowering preachers to fearlessly discuss politics and erasing a law that was almost purely partisan.

Opponents -- including many clergy as well as national groups representing Jews, Muslims and Buddhists-- said the bill would politicize congregations, create rifts between religious leaders and congregants and weaken the separation between church and state.

"From the events of the past year, we have witnessed with horror and anger how those who seek to advance their political agenda can manipulate religion and religious symbols," wrote Bill Aiken, director of public affairs for Soka Gakkai International and the USA Buddhist Association. "Let us learn from this example and promote the health of both our religious institutions and our political discourse by protecting the integrity of our voices of conscience."

Worse, many said, it lowers religion into the mundane and often ugly world of partisan politics.

"If this legislation passed, we would see houses of worship politicized to the point that they would lose both their prophetic voice and their pastoral presence," said the Rev. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, a nonpartisan clergy-led organization based in Washington. "They would become identified more with a political ideology than a religious commitment."

Congregations would be at risk of splintering along ideological lines, especially large flocks with diverse memberships.

"I could see, given the volatility of politics in our society, people leaving one congregation and moving to another congregation -- not because of theology or social services but because of political endorsements," said Gaddy, who also testified in May.

The bill's supporters dismissed that problem, saying church leaders would determine how much political activity is appropriate and could choose to abstain entirely.

Even without the bill, pastors have fairly wide discretion. They can safely talk about any issue, even during sermons. They can even endorse candidates, as long as it is not part of an official church event and they make it clear they are not speaking on behalf of the church. …

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