Protecting the Pulpit: U.S. House Soundly Rejects Rep. Jones' Church Electioneering Bill

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Protecting the Pulpit: U.S. House Soundly Rejects Rep. Jones' Church Electioneering Bill


Boston, Rob, Church & State


U.S. Rep. John Lewis worked beside Dr. Martin Luther King during the 1960s and knows that while King used lots of tactics to secure civil rights, there was one thing he didn't do: endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit.

Thus, the Georgia Democrat was irked to hear supporters of a bill that would allow pulpit electioneering invoke King's name in arguing for the legislation. On Oct. 1, he decided to set the record straight.

"As someone who stood alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other great leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, I can tell my colleagues that they would be dismayed by this legislation," Lewis told his fellow members of Congress. "During the civil rights movement, we fought to end legal segregation and break down barriers to political participation. The church was the heart and soul of our efforts because ministers had the moral authority and respect to stand against immoral and indefensible laws, bad laws, bad customs, bad tradition."

Continued Lewis, "Ministers who led the civil rights movement did not select political candidates and operate our churches like political action committees. Although their churches and leaders faced violence and hatred for their efforts to protect human rights and human dignity, they were free and even protected by the Constitution to speak out on these issues. At no time did we envision or even contemplate the need for our houses of worship to become partisan pulpits."

Lewis' comments came during a late-night debate over Rep. Walter B. Jones' "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357), legislation that would have altered the federal tax law barring houses of worship from endorsing candidates for public office.

Backed by an array of Religious Right groups, the Jones bill received a vote on the House floor Oct. 2 as part of a political compromise. Jones, realizing that the bill was unlikely to emerge from the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight, agreed to allow the vote to occur on the "suspension calendar." Under those rules, the bill would have had to receive the support of two-thirds of the members to pass.

The measure fell far short of that; in fact, it didn't garner a simple majority. When the votes were tallied, the bill had failed 239-178.

Forty-five Republicans joined 193 Democrats (and one independent) in opposing the Jones measure. (See the full vote on page 11.) After the bill's defeat, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn issued a statement hailing the outcome.

"The House did the right thing by rejecting this reckless scheme," said Lynn. "This bill may have been the Religious Right's dream, but it was a nightmare for anyone concerned with the integrity of houses of worship and the political process."

Continued Lynn, "Most Americans do not want their churches turned into smoke-filled rooms where political deals are cut and partisan politics replaces worship. 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 House's action capped a long-running and often bitter debate over the proper role of religion in politics. The Jones bill, drafted by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, was a direct response to efforts by Americans United to educate houses of worship about federal tax law and its provisions barring endorsements of candidates.

The North Carolina Republican was angered by an October 2000 mailing Americans United sent to houses of worship all over the nation, advising them that endorsements of candidates or distribution of biased "voter guides" that endorse candidates are unlawful.

In response, Jones sought to remove the provision barring such activity from the Internal Revenue Service Code. …

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