Chairman Amo Houghton
Ranking Member Willian J. Coyne
& Members of the Committee on Ways & Means,
Subcommittee on Oversight
1136 Longworth Building
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Chairman Houghton, Ranking Member Coyne and Members of the Subcommittee,
We write to you on behalf of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America – this nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, representing nearly 1,000 synagogues across America – to express our serious concerns over H.R. 2357, “The Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act,” and H.R. 2931, “The Bright Line Act,” which are the subjects of your May 14 hearing. While noble in their goals, both of these bills in their current forms would allow partisan political pressures to be exerted upon our synagogues and all other houses of worship in the United States.
As you are aware, current federal law provides that houses of worship, like other 501(c)(3) organizations, may not engage in partisan political activities and retain their tax-exempt status. This provision of federal law has served to insulate religious institutions from the political process in important ways. While we strongly advocate for a vigorous role for religious institutions in our nation’s public life, both H.R. 2357 and H.R. 2931 would remove from the law the most critical legal provision that keeps America’s houses of worship at arm’s length from the rough and tumble of political contests.
Supporters of these bills contend that their enactment is necessary to allow religious leaders to speak out on issues of interest to their congregations. However, current law grants religious leaders an absolute right to use their pulpits to address the moral issues of the day. Tax-exempt houses of worship may not endorse or oppose candidates, or use their tax-exempt donations to contribute to partisan campaigns. Without this clear legal prohibition, clergy and/or their congregations may well be pressured by candidates for office or congregational leaders to explicitly support a political candidacy with no recourse but to extend that support or risk offending the candidate or leader whose support the religious institution needs for its core mission.
We agree with the proponents of H.R. 2357 and H.R. 2931 that the Internal Revenue Service must not be allowed to meddle in the missions of America’s houses of worship and must not be allowed to selectively enforce the provisions of 501(c)(3) against some churches but not others. But we believe that these goals are better achieved by this Subcommittee’s oversight of the I.R.S., not by altering the legal status quo in the manner proposed by H.R.2357 and H.R.2931. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss with you these matters and possible alternative avenues of addressing them should you or the sponsors of these bills wish to do so.
Thank you for considering our views on this important matter. Please do not hesitate to call upon us for any assistance we may render in your deliberations.
Rabbi T. Hersh Weinreb
Richard B. Stone
Nathan J. Diament
cc: Hon. William M. Thomas
Chairman, Committee on Ways & Means
Hon. Charles B. Rangel
Ranking Member, Committee on Ways & Means
Hon. Walter B. Jones
Hon. Philip M. Crane