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Hot debate over free-speech 'chill'

"Hot debate over free-speech 'chill'" Continued...

Issue: "Giving thanks," Nov. 24, 2007

In 2004, Focus created the separate Focus on the Family Action to handle public advocacy because the law says "no substantial part" of income to 501(c)(3) organizations may be spent to influence legislation. The 501(c)(3) groups are exempt from taxes on their income, but donors also may deduct contributions on their personal tax returns. As a 501(c)(4) entity, Focus Action gets the first break but not the second.

In September, Focus joined the Alliance Defense Fund, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, and the James Madison Center in a memo to clergy that belittled the "remote possible loss of tax-exempt status." Judge Buckley's ruling acknowledged that loss of exemption is likely to be "more symbolic than substantial." The reasons: Penalty fees are modest, violators can re-apply for future exemption, and donors don't lose deductions for their contributions unless they are audited.

Sounding like the All Saints "chill" protest, the conservative organizations also charged that tax exemption threats are "used by those hostile to people of faith to chill their right of free speech" and specified Americans United, which regularly attacks conservative activists. Lynn insists that Americans United continually notes that the IRS lets churches address public issues. His "Project Fair Play" letters to clergy warn that "any activity designed to influence the outcome of a partisan election can be construed as intervention" and that exempt groups must be "especially wary of so-called 'voter guides'" that "are often thinly veiled partisan materials." That echoes IRS interpretations. Lynn says his purpose "is not to have churches lose tax exemptions, but to remind them that the law applies to anybody. You've got to play by the same rules that everybody else does."

The entire imbroglio would cease under a proposal from Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., to scrap the 1954 Johnson amendment. His bill, which has stalled several times, is supported by the religious right and opposed by the religious left. Focus senior vice president for public policy Tom Minnery says Congress didn't even hold hearings on the 1954 amendment and Johnson never had churches in mind. "It's too much government control," he said. America should "shore up the wall of separation which, properly understood, keeps government hands off the churches." Given Democrats' and liberals' resurrected zeal for religious appeals, Minnery suggests, all sides may eventually want to repeal the ban.

Minnery said he sees hypocrisy at work because complaints escalated only after conservative churches began responding to liberal agitation. The 1998 National Congregations Study found that Catholic, black, and mainline-liberal churches still generally outpace evangelical-conservative churches on seven types of political activity. Black churches such as Abyssinian were by far the most likely to host candidate appearances.

Richard N. Ostling
Richard N. Ostling

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