Senate Bill Attacks Free Speech
of Churches, Pro-Family Groups
enate Democrats and a few Republicans have slipped into a lobbying reform bill a section that would drastically impact the mission and function of churches and nonprofit organizations--such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council--that seek to inform voters on moral issues.
One of the provisions of S. 1 now being considered by the Senate would require churches and other nonprofits, classified as “grassroots lobbying firms,” to report to the House and Senate any time they spend money to communicate to their constituents on public-policy issues that are before Congress. Failure to comply could result in thousands of dollars in fines and even criminal penalties.
“This is one of the most significant violations of free exercise of religion and the freedom of political speech in our nation’s history,” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, wrote in a column posted on the ACLJ website. “Some have said that this plan is the most comprehensive regulation of political speech that has ever been put forward by Congress.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council wrote in an e-mail to supporters, “This should be called the 'Silence the Citizens Act of 2007.' ... Even pastors who would encourage the members of their congregation to call their senators, their congressmen, about marriage, about life issues, could theoretically fall under the provisions of this measure.”
While pro-family groups say much of the bill is good, they are encouraging constituents to contact their senators and ask them to strike Section 220--the section that could impact churches and church-related groups--from S. 1. Focus on the Family has created a petition on the matter available at focuspetitions.com.
“Protect your right to know,” Focus on the Family's James Dobson said on his radio broadcast Jan. 10. “Protect our right to tell you what we know.”
Dobson said the objective of the legislation’s supporters is clearly to silence the grassroots groups that led millions of Americans to contact their elected officials and affect the outcome of votes on Supreme Court justices, the partial birth abortion ban, broadcast decency fines, and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.
Among the actions that would be subject to government tabulation under the proposed legislation are phone calls, personal visits, e-mails, magazines, broadcasts, appearances, travel, fundraising, and other activities, Dobson said.
Groups Say Wage Hike Is First Step Toward `Living Wage'
Religious leaders rallied behind the House vote on January 10 to raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, but say more needs to be done to create a "living wage" for working families.
"The raise asked for [by the House] is modest but quite significant," said the Rev. Paul Sherry, former president of the United Church of Christ and the national coordinator of the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign. "Raising the minimum wage is an important way station on the way to a living wage for all families."
The minimum wage hike easily cleared the House in a 315-116 vote; more than 80 Republicans joined the Democratic majority to approve the bill. However, it faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Republicans would like to add tax breaks for small businesses to the legislation. Still, several religious organizations said the increase was only a step toward their goal of a living wage for workers.
Catholic Charities USA defines a living wage as a salary that keeps workers and their families above the poverty line, which in 2006 was $20,000 per year for a family of four. Even with the minimum wage increase, a worker earning $7.25 per hour, working five days per week, 52 weeks per year, still would earn only $15,080.
The Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities, referred to the situation as "a moral crisis in a country as wealthy as the United States. Today, too many Americans work hard but cannot make ends meet."
One of those Americans, Stephanie Baldwin, 26, appeared with Snyder at a Capitol Hill press conference Wednesday. Four years ago, Baldwin was homeless. But even after finding work as a secretary through Catholic Charities in Trenton, N.J., she still feels as though she is "on the edge of poverty."
Baldwin said she is unable to receive any governmental aid because assistance programs say she makes too much money to qualify for help. However, due to a lack of affordable housing, she has gradually been forced out of safer neighborhoods into more crime-ridden areas because she cannot afford to rent anywhere else. Baldwin said she hopes to find housing in a better area by the time her son, who is 4, begins kindergarten.
Church of the Nazarene Reports Strong Growth Rates
While many churches have been losing active members, empty pews are generally not a problem at the Church of the Nazarene, an evangelical denomination whose worldwide membership has increased by one-third during the past decade, according to its recently released annual report. The church has 1.6 million members, having gained nearly 700,000 members since 1999.
"Each number represents an immensely valuable person, and we rejoice over each man, woman, student, boy, and girl who is reached with the gospel of Jesus Christ," wrote the Rev. Jerry D. Porte, the church's general superintendent, in the 2006 report to the church's General Board.
The church's biggest increases have been outside the United States Last year the church grew by 5.7 percent overseas, while domestic growth was less than 1 percent. The church has experienced a slight decline in service attendance in the United States and Canada, although Sunday School participation has gone up 1 percent.
There are nearly 19,000 Church of the Nazarene parishes across the world; about 700 new churches were added in the last year.
Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund Aids More Than 1,000 Congregations
More than 1,000 houses of worship will receive grants from the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund to help recover from 2005 hurricane damage on the Gulf Coast.
Fund spokesman Bill Pierce said the number of applications far exceeded expectations. Officials originally expected between 500 and 700 applications. A total of $25 million of the fund's $130 million will be distributed to houses of worship, Pierce said.
He said between 70 percent and 75 percent of the houses of worship have received their funds and the rest should receive them soon.
"Clearly this was overwhelmingly successful in terms of the outreach and the education that was done," he said on January 4. The fund's work with religious groups became controversial last summer when the co-chairs of its religious advisory committee resigned after questioning the fund's financial oversight. Bishop T.D. Jakes, a Dallas megachurch pastor, and the Rev. William H. Gray III, the former president of the United Negro College Fund, said checks were distributed without their knowledge.
Most grants have been for $35,000 or $20,000 for physical repairs ranging from water damage to ruined steeples. Churches were the predominant recipients of the grants but Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist congregations also received funding.
The fund is co-chaired by former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton and aims to help meet long-term recovery needs along the Gulf Coast.