GOP Measure Would Let Churches Back Candidates, Keep Tax-free Status

Churches should have the First Amendment right to endorse political candidates and still keep their tax-free status, say House Republicans, who quietly tucked a provision into a sweeping spending bill that would deny the IRS money to enforce the 63-year-old law prohibiting such outright politicking from the pulpit.

Republicans repeatedly have failed to scrap the law preventing churches and other nonprofits from backing candidates, so now they are trying to starve it. With little fanfare, a House Appropriations subcommittee added the Internal  Revenue Service measure to a bill to fund the Treasury Department, Securities and Exchange Commission and other agencies.

The subcommittee passed the bill Thursday.

Republicans say the law is enforced unevenly, leaving religious leaders uncertain about what they are allowed to say and do.

“I believe that churches have a right of free speech and an opportunity to talk about positions and issues that are relevant to their faith,” said Representative Jim Renacci, an Ohio Republican.

Some Democrats say the measure comes too close to mixing church and state. They say religious leaders already have First Amendment rights, just like anyone else. But if they want to get political, they don’t have a constitutional right not to pay taxes.

Some also worry that the measure could upend the system of campaign financing by allowing churches to use their tax-free status to funnel money to political candidates.

Representative Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, recalled a speech that former President John F. Kennedy gave to religious leaders when he was running for president.

“He said the pope wouldn’t tell him what to do, and the people in that audience shouldn’t be telling people on Sunday morning who to vote for,” Neal said. “I don’t think churches should be endorsing.”

Many nonprofit groups want to avoid politics. In April, 4,500 nonprofit groups signed a letter to congressional leaders asking them to preserve the law.

The law prohibits tax-exempt charitable organizations such as churches from participating directly or indirectly in any political campaign to support or oppose a candidate. If the IRS determines that a group has violated the law, it can revoke its tax-exempt status.

The law doesn’t stop religious groups from weighing in on public policy or organizing in ways that may benefit one side in a campaign.

The bill specifically forbids the IRS from spending money to enforce the law against “a church, or a convention or association of churches,” unless the IRS commissioner signs off on it and notifies Congress.

The bill doesn’t mention other types of nonprofit groups, or even synagogues or mosques, said Nick Little of the Center for Inquiry, which promotes secularism.

“All they care about is the Christian groups, and in particular, it will end up as the extreme religious right Christian groups,” Little said. “If this goes through, this would add just another way in which unregulated dark money could be used.”

Religious leaders have been weighing in on political issues for generations, whether it’s the debate over abortion or advocating for the poor. But periodically, the IRS has stepped in when religious leaders explicitly endorse or oppose candidates.

The law is called the Johnson Amendment after former President Lyndon Johnson, who introduced it in 1954 when he was a Democratic senator from Texas. Johnson was upset because a few nonprofit groups attacked him as a communist in a Senate campaign.

The law was signed by a Republican president — Dwight Eisenhower — but Republicans have been attacking it in recent years.

House Republicans have pledged to repeal the law as part of a tax overhaul. President Donald Trump signed an executive order in May discouraging the IRS from enforcing the law.

Representative Pat Tiberi, an Ohio Republican, says the law has been enforced unevenly.

“Some churches, including my own, have been very concerned about appearing political in any way shape or form,” Tiberi said. “Churches I went to that were primarily in Democrat areas, that I would go to because I had a Democrat district, the local candidates on the Sunday mornings before the election would be introduced, would speak from the pulpit about the campaign and why the congregation should vote for them.”

The full Appropriations Committee will consider the measure after the July Fourth congressional recess.

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UN Peacekeeping Budget Cut By $600 Million

The U.N. General Assembly voted Friday to cut $600 million from the organization’s nearly $8 billion annual peacekeeping budget.

The move comes amid pressure from the Trump administration, which contributes more than a quarter of the department’s annual budget. But U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who took office Jan. 1, has also called for major U.N. reforms, including in peacekeeping.

U.N. peacekeeping, which supports more than 110,000 troops, police and civilians in 16 missions, has come under harsh criticism in recent years for undisciplined troops who have sometimes failed to protect civilians and even sexually abused them. In Haiti, U.N. peacekeepers have been blamed for bringing a cholera epidemic to the island nation that sickened and killed thousands.

But despite inefficiencies and problems, the “blue helmets,” as peacekeepers are known for their distinctive head gear, still play an important role in fragile countries where civilians need protection, humanitarian assistance and stable institutions.

“It’s great value,” said Jordie Hannum, senior director for the Better World Campaign, which works to promote strong relations between the United States and the United Nations.

“There is decades of research that shows that peacekeeping, when sufficiently resourced and equipped, can make a huge difference in terms of preventing the resurgence of conflict and in terms of protection of civilians,” Hannum said.

US push

Upon arriving at the U.N. in January, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said she would be looking at what is working and fixing what is not.

“Anything that seems to be obsolete and not necessary, we’re going to do away with,” Haley warned.

The United States is the U.N.’s largest donor, contributing about $611 million this year to the regular budget of more than $2.5 billion. Washington also contributes more than $2 billion annually to peacekeeping, and hundreds of millions more to programs, including the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Program.

Friday’s vote was focused only on the peacekeeping budget, meaning the U.S. will save around $150 million next year, as it pays about a quarter of the peacekeeping budget.

Washington had hoped to slash $1 billion from the department’s budget, but lengthy negotiations among member states ended with a European Union-proposed compromise of $7.3 billion for the annual peacekeeping budget. Ambassador Haley proclaimed it a victory.

“Just five months into our time here, we’ve already been able to cut over half a billion dollars from the U.N. peacekeeping budget and we’re only getting started,” she said in a statement.

Impact on the ground

U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters the world body will make every effort to ensure mandates are implemented, despite the sizable budget cut.

“We cannot overstate the value of peacekeeping to achieve peace and stability,” Dujarric said. “It remains the most cost-effective instrument at the disposal of the international community to prevent conflicts and foster conditions for lasting peace.”

Several peacekeeping missions have already been under review. On Friday, the 13-year-old mission in the Ivory Coast completed its shut down. That mission had a budget of more than $150 million in its final year.

Others, like the massive, decade-old African Union-U.N. Hybrid operation in Sudan’s Darfur region, which has more than 19,000 peacekeepers and an annual budget exceeding $1 billion, will see a gradual reduction in troops.

In Haiti, that mission has begun a six-month drawdown of its nearly 4,000-strong military component and in mid-October will transition to a police-only mission.

Managing with less

Several Security Council ambassadors welcomed the cuts, which will translate to savings for all countries that contribute to the peacekeeping budget.

“There was a substantial cut, which is of course what many delegations were looking for,” said Italian Ambassador Sebastiano Cardi. “But the operational activities of all the missions have been protected and preserved, and I think that’s what we were looking for.”

“We believe in some cases there is a need for some cuts, depending on each mission,” said Bolivian Ambassador Sacha Llorentty. “I think that, for instance, we have taken a wise decision in terms of Darfur, the downsizing of that mission was the right thing to do.”

“Funding is essential, but better management at a certain point may compensate  not substitute, but compensate  for reduced funding,” said Uruguay Ambassador Elbio Rosselli. “It will mean that we will all have to make more efforts in making sure that we deliver with less resources, which is something most of us have to do in real life.”

But some missions have actually seen an increase in resources, including in Mali, which is on the front line of the war on terror in the Sahel region of West Africa.

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Trump Revives National Space Council, to Be Led by Pence

President Donald Trump is forming a National Space Council to be led by Vice President Mike Pence.

 

The president signed an executive order Friday to revive a council last in place in 1993.

 

Trump says the announcement sends a clear signal to the world about the United States’ leadership in space. He says space exploration would help the economy and national security.

 

Members of the council are to include the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, transportation and homeland security, as well as the head of NASA, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security adviser and the director of national intelligence.

The council will also draw on insights from scientists and business leaders.

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Research: In a Warming Climate, the Poor Get Poorer

Climate change will have an impact, not just on the temperature, but on the economy, according to a new analysis. A group of researchers has just released a study focused on the future economic effects of climate change in the U.S. Using six different economic variables, the team is predicting, with county by county accuracy, how a warming climate will rapidly change American society over the next century. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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State Officials Call for End to DACA Program for US Undocumented Immigrants

Officials from 10 states are calling on the administration of President Donald Trump to end an Obama-era program that granted temporary immunity to undocumented young people who were brought to the United States as children.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the officials urged the administration to end the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program or risk being taken to court.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, nine other attorneys general and one governor signed the letter.

“We respectfully request that the Secretary of Homeland Security phase out the DACA program,” Paxton wrote. He was joined by the attorneys general of Arkansas, Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, as well as Idaho Governor C.L. Otter.

DACA has deferred deportation and granted work permits for a renewable two-year period for at least 750,000 recipients nationwide.

In a June 15 memo rescinding the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program, the secretary of DHS wrote that DACA would remain in effect, although its future was uncertain. Trump says he has not decided what to do about DACA.

DAPA blocked

DAPA never took effect. Twenty-six states challenged the program in a federal district court in Texas, which called the program an overreach by the administration of former President Barack Obama and blocked its implementation. That ruling was upheld on appeal, and a further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2016 ended in a split decision, which left the initial ruling in place.

In rescinding DAPA, DHS said the agency saw no way to effectively argue the case.

The original Texas lawsuit has not been dismissed, and Paxton wrote that if the administration did not rescind DACA, “the complaint in that case will be amended to challenge both the DACA program and the remaining expanded DACA permits.”

The letter gave the Trump administration a deadline of September 5 to decide.

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Court: US Can Seize New York Tower Linked to Iran

A New York jury ruled Thursday in federal court that a skyscraper with apparent ties to the Iranian government can be seized by the U.S. government, in what prosecutors are calling the single largest terrorism-related civil forfeiture case in American history.

The jury found that the Alavi Foundation, which owns about 60 percent of the 36-floor building, funneled money to the Assa Corporation, a shell company for Iran’s state-controlled bank that owned the remaining 40 percent of the building.

The defense argued that the Alavi Foundation, founded as a charity by the shah of Iran in the 1970s, had been tricked into believing that Assa had been sold to private investors after the 1995 implementation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

“It’s really difficult to understand why you can be held accountable for the knowledge that you were trying to get, but you were lied to about,” defense attorney John Gleeson said during closing arguments, according to The New York Times.

Prosecutors asserted that officials from the Alavi Foundation lied, hiding and shredding documents in an attempt to erase guilt.

“The owners of 650 Fifth Avenue gave the Iranian government a critical foothold in the very heart of Manhattan through which Iran successfully circumvented U.S. economic sanctions,” Joon H. Kim, a lawyer from the prosecutor’s office, told French news agency AFP.

Situated on New York City’s posh Fifth Avenue, the building is valued at between $500 million and $1 billion. The court has decided to distribute the proceeds from its sale to the victims of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks.

In particular, victims of the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks attack and of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia will receive benefits. Tehran has consistently denied involvement in either of the attacks.

In 2013, a lower court decided the case in the U.S. government’s favor, but the decision was stayed on appeal.

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