Hooray for The Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act!
If you’re looking for a rifle shot (as distinguished from a shotgun blast) to aim at today’s cultural malaise, consider supporting passage of Congressman Walter Jones’ Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act (HR 235) that appears to be picking up support in the House of Representatives. The measure – with 165 co-sponsors to date – would lift IRS restrictions banning political speech from the pulpit.
Have religious leaders ever been allowed to speak out politically? Yes! Prior to 1954, pastors and religious leaders spoke freely about candidates and political issues when they felt the need. The slavery abolitionist organizations and the civil rights movement are great examples of church inspired political successes. But in 1954, then Senator Lyndon Johnson added language to pending tax legislation to prevent two non-profit groups that opposed him in 1948 from speaking out against him in his 1954 re-election. Since then, that tax language has been used to silence political speech in America’s houses of worship.
The Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act legislation would restore to America’s clergy the freedom to discuss politics with their congregations without putting their church’s tax exempt status in jeopardy. Under the new formulation, clergy would be free to speak out on political issues during worship services – but prohibited from any direct participation in campaign activities.
Up till now, however, support from Democrats has been slim to none. But that may change with the IRS investigation – announced just last month – into the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., one of the largest liberal congregations in the nation. The IRS claims that two days before the 2004 presidential election, All Saints Rev. George Regas Regas ran afoul of tax law when he used his pulpit to deliver a blistering attack on President Bush and the Iraq war. While insisting he wasn’t instructing anyone on how to vote, according to Gannett News – Regas implored his flock: “Jesus places on your heart this question. When you go to the polls this November, will you vote all your values?” Reacting to the IRS investigation into All Saints, Robert Edger, general secretary of the left wing National Council of Churches, complained that the church is being targeted by “a political witch hunt.”
And while traditional left-wing advocacy groups like People for the American Way and Americans United for Separation of Church and State remain opposed to Rep. Jones’ measure, the All Saints case is making for some strange political bedfellows. The Los Angeles Times reports that when Ted Haggard, head of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals, heard about the All Saints case, he reached out to the National Council – telling them that while probably would not agree with much in Rev. Regas’ election eve sermon, he wants to work together to do “whatever it takes to get the IRS to stop” such actions.
With so many issues before legislative bodies involving moral questions of the day, those who ask for help from a higher power should not be excluded from the political process. Stay tuned – and weigh in by letting your lawmakers know what you think!