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Does US law mute voices of churches?

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"Imagine having a church meeting in which people try to decide which candidate to endorse," says the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance. "Clergy are responsible to interpret aspects of our lives from the perspective of scriptures, but that's different from bestowing divine blessing on a candidate."

The Jones bill is named the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, but some legal experts say it has nothing to do with the First Amendment.

"Free speech is a completely bogus argument," says Robert Tuttle, professor at George Washington University Law School. "The government isn't telling religious leaders they can't talk about anything they want to; it says if you choose to engage in political activity, you are going to be treated under a certain set of rules."

Under current rules, clergy may discuss any issues of public concern during sermons, and houses of worship can engage in civic education and voter-registration activities that are nonpartisan. Clergy may even endorse candidates as individuals. But religious organizations and leaders - as their representatives - may not engage in any partisan political activity.

The ban on electioneering comes from a provision in the Internal Revenue Service code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Such 501(c)(3) groups pay no income tax and can receive tax-deductible contributions.

"The best way to look at this is as a campaign finance regulation that says people can enjoy a tax deduction for charitable contributions to churches and hospitals but not to political campaigns," says Dr. Tuttle.

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