Bill lets churches en­dorse can­di­dates

Crit­ics fear change would al­low more un­reg­u­lated dark money into po­lit­i­cal races

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Stephen Oh­lemacher

WASH­ING­TON» Churches should have the right to en­dorse po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates and still keep their tax-free sta­tus, say House Repub­li­cans tar­get­ing a law that pro­hibits such out­right pol­i­tick­ing from the pul­pit.

Repub­li­cans re­peat­edly have failed to scrap the law pre­vent­ing churches and other non­prof­its from back­ing can­di­dates, so they are try­ing to starve it. With lit­tle fan­fare, a House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee added a pro­vi­sion that would deny money to the IRS to en­force the 63-yearold law to a bill to fund the Trea­sury Depart­ment, Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion and other agen­cies. The full com­mit­tee will vote after the hol­i­day re­cess.

Repub­li­cans say the law is en­forced un­evenly, leav­ing re­li­gious lead­ers un­cer­tain about what they are al­lowed to say and do. “I be­lieve that churches have a right of free speech and an op­por­tu­nity to talk about po­si­tions and is­sues that are rel­e­vant to their faith,” said Rep. Jim Re­nacci, R-Ohio.

Some Democrats say the mea­sure comes too close to mix­ing church and ● state. They say re­li­gious lead­ers al­ready have First Amend­ment rights, just like any­one else. But if they want to get po­lit­i­cal, they don’t have a con­sti­tu­tional right not to pay taxes.

Some also worry that the mea­sure could up­end the sys­tem of cam­paign fi­nanc­ing by al­low­ing churches to use their tax-free sta­tus to fun­nel money to po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates.

Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., re­called a speech that for­mer Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy gave to re­li­gious lead­ers when he was run­ning for pres­i­dent. “He said the pope wouldn’t tell him what to do, and the peo­ple in that au­di­ence shouldn’t be telling peo­ple on Sun­day morn­ing who to vote for,” Neal said. “I don’t think churches should be en­dors­ing.”

Many non­profit groups want to avoid pol­i­tics. In April, 4,500 non­profit groups signed onto a let­ter to con­gres­sional lead­ers ask­ing them to pre­serve the law.

The law pro­hibits tax-ex­empt char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions such as churches from par­tic­i­pat­ing di­rectly or in­di­rectly in any po­lit­i­cal cam­paign to sup­port or op­pose a can­di­date. If the IRS de­ter­mines that a • group has vi­o­lated the law, it can re­voke its tax-ex­empt sta­tus.

The law doesn’t stop re­li­gious groups from weigh­ing in on pub­lic pol­icy or or­ga­niz­ing in ways that may ben­e­fit one side in a cam­paign.

The bill specif­i­cally for­bids the IRS from spend­ing money to en­force the law against “a church, or a con­ven­tion or as­so­ci­a­tion of churches,” un­less the IRS com­mis­sioner signs off on it and no­ti­fies Congress.

The bill doesn’t men­tion other types of non-profit groups, or even syn­a­gogues or mosques, said Nick Lit­tle of the Cen­ter for In­quiry, which pro­motes sec­u­lar­ism.

“All they care about is the Chris­tian groups, and in par­tic­u­lar, it will end up as the ex­treme re­li­gious right Chris­tian groups,” Lit­tle said. “If this goes through, this would add just an­other way in which un­reg­u­lated dark money could be used.”

Re­li­gious lead­ers have been weigh­ing in on po­lit­i­cal is­sues for gen­er­a­tions, whether it’s the de­bate over abor­tion or ad­vo­cat­ing for the poor.

But pe­ri­od­i­cally, the IRS has stepped in when re­li­gious lead­ers ex­plic­itly en­dorse or op­pose can­di­dates.

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