From AU's Wall of Separation Blog
The U.S. House of Representatives passed an important appropriations bill (HR 5485) on Thursday that will help fund the federal government for the next year. Tucked into this legislation are three troubling provisions that would weaken church-state separation and harm true religious liberty.
- Discrimination Against Women in the Name of Religion: In 2014, the District of Columbia adopted a law called the “Reproductive Non-Discrimination Amendment Act.” This measure prohibits discrimination against employees and their dependents based on their reproductive choices – including their decision to use birth control. Since Congress has control over the purse of the District of Columbia, it has the power to prevent it from spending money on its own programs. An amendment offered by Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Al.) would prohibit the District from using funds to enforce this law—making the law null and void. Americans United strongly opposed this amendment, but it passed nonetheless.
- The DC Private School Voucher Program: More than 10 years ago Congress imposed a federally funded private school voucher on the people of the District of Columbia. That program was set to expire this year, but this appropriations bill (which is supposed to fund programs not create them) would extend the program another five years. It is bad enough that the program, which gives qualifying students between $8,000 and $12,000 in taxpayer dollars annually to attend a private school, funds predominately religious schools. But the program also has serious oversight and quality control problems, and doesn’t improve academic achievement. But facts haven’t gotten in the way of those pushing for the bill to be reauthorized. Americans United has been a leader in the fight to oppose this program since its inception. You can read the letter we joined with our allies to oppose this provision.
- Partisan Politicking: The bill also contains a provision that will make it easier for houses of worship to get away with pulpit politicking. Since 1954, churches and other 501(c)(3) non-profits have been prohibited from telling people how to vote when it comes to candidates. If a church—like every other secular 501(c)(3) non-profit—does decide to endorse a candidate, it risks losing its tax exemption. Over the years, however, the IRS has failed to vigorously enforce this provision. That is in part thanks to a lawsuit challenging agency rules about which official is supposed to sign off on church audits. A provision in H.R. 5485 would limit the ability to authorize these audits to only the IRS Commissioner. Limiting it to one person—the person in charge of the entire IRS no less—would make enforcement of the restriction even more unlikely.
Americans United launched Project Fair Play in 1996 to support enforcement of the no-politicking rule. Since that time, we’ve reported more than 100 churches to the IRS because they endorsed or opposed candidates. We don’t want to see churches become cogs in partisan political machines, which is why we believe the agency should strictly enforce this rule. If you agree that the IRS should police churches that can’t stay out of politics, please sign our petition.
As you can see, there are quite a few problems with a bill that is mainly intended to keep the government running. We can only hope that these provisions are removed as the bill makes its way through the Senate. But only time will tell. In the meantime, you can learn more about our other work opposing vouchers and pulpit politicking, and in support of reproductive rights.