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Does US law mute voices of churches?

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Religion is striking a high profile in the 2004 campaign. But there are those eager to see it take on a much larger role - both now and in the future.

More than 130 members of the US House of Representatives want to amend the law that prohibits partisan activity - such as political rallies, fundraisers, distribution of political literature, and direct endorsements from the pulpit - by pastors and houses of worship. They hope to do this by inserting a provision into a bill that is already before a House-Senate conference committee - thus avoiding public debate or votes in either body.

Supporters say the provision is needed to restore free speech to religious leaders. Barring political endorsements from the pulpit curtails the First Amendment rights of pastors, they say.

But opponents argue that it would turn houses of worship into campaign vehicles and possibly reshape the America's religious and political landscapes in harmful ways. They worry that political endorsements could divide churches, lead to reconfiguring memberships along political lines, adulterate their spiritual purpose and prophetic role as societal consciences, and even perhaps turn their coffers into unregulated channels for campaign financing.

"Nothing is more important than our spiritual leaders having the right to name candidates who stand for protecting morality," says Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina, the bill's sponsor. The legislation would permit political speech or "presentations" during services or other church-sponsored gatherings.

But the existing rules have kept religious groups "from being pressured or ensnared into partisan political activity," counters Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The AU criticizes the Bush-Cheney campaign for seeking to obtain church membership rosters for use in this year's campaign.

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