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June-09-04

House Bill Eases Ban on Partisan Politics for Churches

An amendment that would reduce the penalties for churches that engage in partisan politics has been tacked on to a major corporate tax-relief bill being fast-tracked in the House of Representatives. Current law allows churches and other tax-exempt 501(c)3 groups to speak out only on political issues and lead non-partisan voter registration drives, but if they endorse candidates or engage in partisan politics their tax-exempt status can be revoked. The so-called "Safe Harbor for Churches" amendment makes special exemptions for religious leaders to engage in partisan political activity, including endorsing candidates, as long as they made it clear they were acting as private citizens and they did not engage in such activity at church functions or using church funds, according to the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, penalties for so-called "unintentional" lapses would be reduced, and a church would not face losing its tax-exempt status until after three violations. "That means you can take the last three Sundays before the election and pass out a voter card and still retain your tax status as a church," Daniel Maffi, communications director for the Democratic minority on the House Ways and Means Committee, told the New York Times.

Just days before the measure was introduced, an email sent by the Bush campaign to members of churches in Pennsylvania was made public. According to the email, the New York Times reports, Bush's campaign headquarters was trying to identify 1,600 "friendly congregations" in Pennsylvania where voters supportive of President Bush could gather on a regular basis. The Times continues that a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania campaign said the email was part of a larger national effort.

"This is a blatant attempt to recruit churches into partisan politics," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Even worse, this measure tries to make sweeping changes in tax law through the back door and out of public view. I don't think it's a coincidence that this bill will help the Bush campaigns' outreach to churches."

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Media Resources: Americans United release 6/8/04; Washington Post 6/9/04; New York Times 6/8/03, 6/3/04

   

     

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