Americans United for Separation of Church and State has filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service alleging that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s appearance in a Baptist church in Miami on Sunday, October 10, amounted to an illegal campaign rally.
Meanwhile, Rep. Walter Jones (R.-N.C.), a conservative defender of the 1st Amendment rights of churches, says the incident bolsters his argument for legalizing political speech in churches. Jones is sponsor of the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act (HR 235) that would allow clergymen and others to expressly advocate or oppose candidates and political causes in a church without surrendering the church’s tax-exempt status. Congress may approve this bill during the lame-duck session that will follow the election.
On October 10, Kerry, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and others spoke at the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Miami. Although Americans United does not claim explicit endorsements of Kerry were made at the Miami service and no transcript of the event could be found, news reports indicate endorsements of Kerry were made.
“It was a virtual campaign rally,” said Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United. “. . . It was similar to another one that took place in Miami in August.” (DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe headlined that event, although Kerry himself was not present.) Boston said the October 10 event was a clear violation of federal law which says that tax-exempt churches, in the IRS’s words, cannot “intervene in” the outcome of an election.
James Bopp, an attorney associated with the James Madison Center for Free Speech, said he believes the government should get out of the business of regulating speech in churches and favors the Jones bill. “It’s a step in the right direction,” he said, noting that it applied only to speeches and sermons made in church and not to church bulletins and other communications, which would still be regulated by the IRS. Many pastors have suffered a “chilling effect” from “harassment” by the IRS and cannot speak freely, Bopp said.
Jones’s bill is supported by the House Republican leadership and by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R.-Iowa). Later this year, it could be attached to legislation raising the government’s debt ceiling or to the omnibus spending bill that must be passed to fund the government. Jones told HUMAN EVENTS that Americans United and others have been targeting religious leaders for speaking out on politically potent moral issues such as abortion and same-sex “marriage,” not just on elections. “A bishop in Colorado Springs can’t write a pastoral letter without [AU Executive Director] Barry Lynn filing a complaint,” he said. “My bill would return the 1st Amendment right of spiritual leaders that they had until 1954,” when then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D.-Tex.) slipped a provision into a bill revoking churches’ tax-exempt status if they engaged in political activity.