ACLU Rebukes Backdoor Congressional Attempts to Allow Tax-Exempt Religious Groups To Engage in Partisan Political Activities

June 14, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today strongly rebuked a backdoor attempt by some Members of Congress to permit tax-exempt religious organizations to engage in partisan political activities, saying that the unconstitutional measure would discriminate against secular non-profit organizations.

“By only granting new privileges to religious groups, the current measure in Congress raises serious constitutional red flags,” said Terri Ann Schroeder, an ACLU Legislative Analyst.

At issue is H.R. 4520, the “American Jobs Creation Act of 2004” and two of its sections, sec. 692, the “Safe Harbor For Churches,” and sec. 4956, “Tax on Impermissible Activities By Churches.” The ACLU said these sections would provide a preference and benefit to religious non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations that would be denied to all other non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations. If adopted, these provisions would permit religious institutions given tax-exempt status the ability to engage in partisan political campaign activities.

The bill is scheduled for mark-up tonight.

Under current federal law, 501(c)(3) organizations are those that are “organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific ? purposes,” and for which “no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation and which does not participate in, or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

The so-called “safe harbor provisions” would constitute blatant discrimination against non-religious 501(c)(3) organizations, which are prohibited under law from engaging in political campaign activities. Moreover, the ACLU warned that the proposal violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, under which the government cannot favor religious groups over non-religious groups.

The United States Supreme Court previously ruled in Texas Monthly, Inc. v. Bullock that laws that create different levels of protection based solely upon whether or not a group is religious are unconstitutional. As the ‘safe harbor provisions” would give religious organizations preferential treatment and grant them a higher amount of protection, the two sections of H.R. 4520 are clearly unconstitutional.

Congressman John Lewis (D-GA-5) is expected to offer an amendment to strike the two controversial provisions from the jobs measure. The ACLU supports the Lewis amendment.

“Congress has rejected measures like this in years past when similar concerns were raised,” Schroeder added. “The Establishment Clause clearly dictates that the government cannot favor religious groups over secular ones.”

To read the ACLU’s letter on H.R. 4520, the “American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, go to:
/node/21162

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