House panel deletes supposed protection for churches

WASHINGTON (BP)--A House of Representatives committee has eliminated a measure promoted as free-speech protection for churches but opposed by the Southern Baptist Convention’s religious freedom agency as an ill-advised proposal.

The House Ways and Means Committee removed language in a tax reform/jobs creation bill that was touted as protecting pastors and other religious leaders regarding comments they make as private citizens about political campaigns. It also was intended to protect churches and other religious bodies when they commit “unintentional violations” of the Internal Revenue tax code. The panel took the action by voice vote to delete a provision titled Safe Harbor for Churches from the bill, H.R. 4520.

While the measure was put forward as an attempt to increase protection for the rights of pastors and churches, Southern Baptist religious liberty specialist Richard Land called it “woefully inadequate” and “dangerous.”

If approved, the legislation would result in “an unacceptable intrusion of the IRS into the business of a church,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a June 9 letter to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. The private speech of pastors already is protected, Land also said.

Under the legislation, financial penalties would have been implemented when a religious group or leader intervenes in a political campaign, but the organization’s tax-exempt status would not be threatened until there are more than three violations in a year.

The committee’s decision to remove the language came June 14. The panel forwarded the bill minus the Safe Harbor measure, and the House approved the legislation June 17.

The ERLC continues to support another measure designed to restore freedom of speech by pastors and churches on election campaigns and related issues. The Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, H.R. 235, would prevent a church’s tax-exempt status from being affected by the “content, preparation or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.”

Such protection for churches and other religious bodies is needed, but he still does “not believe it is wise, prudent or appropriate for Baptist churches to endorse candidates,” Land said.

The ERLC is sponsoring a nonpartisan effort to register and educate voters. Information on the initiative may be accessed at

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