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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

New Congress Proposes Drastic Legislation to Impact Churches

Cross Posted from Stop the ACLU and ACLJ.

Nancy Pelosi hasn’t been Speaker of the House for two weeks yet and there is already proposed legislation which would be the most significant encroachment ever into the affairs and ability of churches and other organizations to communicate. Under the guise of lobbying reform, Speaker Pelosi and others have proposed legislation greatly expanding the scope of lobbying regulation which would have a significant impact on churches, pastors, religious denominations, public interest organizations, civic organizations and other nonprofit groups. Even private individuals who voluntarily pay for media to distribute important messages to the general public on political matters would be impacted.

So draconian is the proposed Lobbying Reform Bill that it would actually impose registration and reporting requirements on churches and other nonprofit organizations. This is because the definition of “lobbyist” and “lobbying firms” includes specifically grassroots-organizing efforts. Under this broad-based regulatory scheme that Nancy Pelosi is advocating, many churches, especially larger churches with TV and radio ministries, would be subject to registration as a lobbying organization. Failure to comply with these lobbying requirements could result in fines and even criminal sanctions. Churches and their pastors who address the social issues of the day and encourage members and non-members alike to mobilize for action, including communications with Congress, would be required to make certain initial and quarterly disclosures to the United States Congress about their activities.

Under the House version of the Bill, a church or organization would be considered a “grassroots lobbying firm” subject to this law if the group attempted to influence the general public to voluntarily contact federal officials in order to express their own views on a federal issue. Furthermore, many large churches and ministries utilize mass media to communicate their message. Under this House Bill by Nancy Pelosi, these communications, as long as they are directed to at least one person who is not a member of the church, would fall under this new Bill. Finally, if the church spends an aggregate of only $50,000 or more for such efforts in a quarterly period, they are now required to register as lobbyists. Many ministries spend $50,000 or more a month for air time.

This attempt to slip in this onerous requirement on churches and other organizations must be stopped. The rationale behind Speaker Pelosi and others’ desire to silence churches is obvious. Pastors addressing the moral issues of the day have been able to mobilize tens of thousands of individuals to speak out on various issues. But under this proposed legislation, if a church or denomination spent $50,000 of its own resources on air time to encourage people to support the confirmation of federal judicial nominees or to lend its support to a federal marriage amendment, then that church or denomination would be classified as a grassroots lobbying firm. This is one of the most significant violations of free exercise of religion and the freedom of political speech in our Nation’s history. Some have said that this plan is the most comprehensive regulation of political speech that has ever been put forward by Congress.

As one of the lawyers who argued against the campaign finance law at the Supreme Court of the United States, I can tell you that this increased government regulation of churches is not only unwarranted but also unwise. In my argument before the Court, I asserted that a prohibition on minors contributing to a political campaign was unconstitutional, and that students have fundamental rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association. A unanimous Supreme Court agreed with me. The same is true here. Lobbying reform can be put forward without impacting the ability of pastors and churches to speak out on the moral issues of the day, which is part of their prophetic responsibilities. The First Amendment of the Constitution provides for the right of the citizens to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Previous lobbying legislation recognized this right to petition the government and specifically carved out exceptions in the law. Unfortunately and not surprisingly, Speaker Pelosi’s proposals have no such protection for the ability of our citizens to petition the government. In essence, this proposed legislation attempts to override the United States Constitution.

This is not the way our Republic is structured. Congress has no authority to amend our United States Constitution on its own accord. If the Freedom of Speech and the Free Exercise of Religion Clauses mean anything, they mean that church leaders and other citizens have the right to address the moral issues of the day and encourage participation of the citizenry in support of or opposition to legislative initiatives. Nancy Pelosi’s proposed legislation would have stopped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from gathering support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, as he addressed the social issues from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, he might well have had to register as a lobbyist.

What we need to do now is exercise our existing First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, freedom of association and the ability to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Our grievance is simple: Congress cannot silence churches and other organizations from grassroots involvement in critical issues of our day. Let us now petition the government aggressively and support an amendment to this proposed legislation by Senators Bennett, McConnell, Kyl, and Cornyn that would eliminate the provisions of this lobbying reform dealing with grassroots efforts. This way we can ensure that churches and many other public interest organizations would not have to register as lobbyists. Click here to sign the petition.