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Americans United Says Churches That Distribute Biased Voter Guides Will Be Reported To The Internal Revenue Service.

Religious leaders tempted to join forces with the Christian Coalition and jump head first into partisan politics should think again. Such a move, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State, could cost a church its tax-exempt status.

As the 1998 election season winds down, Americans United is wrapping up a new national campaign designed to remind houses of worship that distributing partisan campaign material in the pews is a violation of Internal Revenue Service regulations.

In a major escalation of AU's "Project Fair Play," the organization announced last September that it will begin reporting churches that distribute the Christian Coalition's voter guides -- or other similarly biased guides from other organizations -- to the Internal Revenue Service. At the same time, AU has stepped up its efforts to educate religious leaders about the dangers of partisan political activity in houses of worship.

The new AU offensive is a direct response to efforts by Christian Coalition leaders to drag more churches into partisan politics. Leaders with the group announced last year that they hope to recruit more than 100,000 "church liaisons" to work with local pastors to ensure the widest distribution possible of some 45 million Coalition voter guides this year. One of the duties of the liaisons will be to quell any qualms pastors may have about in-house political activity by passing out material prepared by Christian Coalition attorneys that insist that the Coalition's efforts are merely a permissible form of "voter education."

Americans United disagrees sharply with the Coalition's spin. Officials at the Washington-based group say they have studied Coalition guides from previous years and assert that they are clearly biased and carefully stacked in favor of certain ultra-conservative candidates who hew to the Coalition's position on social issues.

AU notes that independent observers have reached the same conclusion. In their 1996 book Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics, Glenn R. Simpson, a Wall Street Journal reporter, and Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, exposed exactly how the Coalition manipulates its guides to favor selected candidates.

Analyzing CC voter guides from 1994, Simpson and Sabato assert the guides contained "manipulations, distortions and outright falsehoods." Charge Simpson and Sabato, "Rather than simply seeking to inform voters of where candidates stood on the issues, the guides give every appearance of having been designed with the explicit intention of influencing voting decisions in favor of Republicans."

And that, says Americans United, is why they may not be distributed in churches. AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn notes that the IRS Code is crystal clear on this question: Non-profit, tax-exempt organizations holding a 501 (c)(3) status, which includes houses of worship, are absolutely prohibited from distributing partisan campaign material, making financial contributions to political campaigns or endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

"It is unfortunate that we have come to this point," said Lynn. "But the Christian Coalition is trying to mislead America's religious leaders, and we simply must take action to safeguard the integrity of the religious community and the political process."

Continued Lynn, "I have one word for churches tempted to distribute the Christian Coalition's deceitful voter guides: Don't! It is not only a violation of the IRS Code, it's unethical to boot. The Bible, after all, reminds us not to bear false witness."

Last September Americans United commissioned the respected Washington law firm of Caplin and Drysdale to update a memorandum to churches warning them about the distribution of partisan material. The memo, first issued in 1996, is being distributed nationally to denominational headquarters and to individual houses of worship and religious leaders.

Titled "Urgent Memorandum For Churches Concerning Distribution of `Voter Guides' In 1998 Congressional Elections," the document was drafted by Milton Cerny, formerly chief of the Exempt Organizations Ruling Area at the IRS, and Albert G. Lauber Jr., former deputy solicitor general in the U.S. Justice Department who has extensive experience litigating tax cases before the Supreme Court.

The "Urgent Memorandum" warns churches of several "red flags" that could indicate that a voter guide is likely to be viewed as partisan by the IRS. The memo says voter guides should not target issues that track an organization's known agenda, should not offer unfair descriptions of a candidate's positions, should not unfairly summarize a candidate's voting record and should not be widely distributed close to an election. Coalition voter guides, Lynn and other critics assert, run afoul of all of these standards.

"Before agreeing to distribute a voter guide prepared by another organization, a church must ensure that the guide is truly nonpartisan and does not endorse or oppose any candidate, either explicitly or by implication," reads Cerny and Lauber's memo. "It does not matter that the church may not intend any political intervention. The IRS and the courts do not look to the church's motive, but to whether the voter guide in fact favors one candidate over another."

(The memorandum can be read online at Americans United's website: www.au.org, along with a longer document by Cerny and Lauber containing more information about distribution of voter guides by religious groups titled "Legal Requirements For Voter Guides To Qualify As Permissible Voter Education.")

Americans United activists around the country are helping the organization spread the word. In late September AU mailed all of its members a one-page open letter to religious leaders signed by Lynn warning about the dangers of distributing Coalition voter guides. Members were asked to copy the letter and mail it to local houses of worship.

The response so far has been positive. Many members reported back to AU, saying they had mailed dozens of letters. One man in Chicago said he mailed more than 350.

Some churches sympathetic to the Christian Coalition complained that the AU effort smacked of intimidation. In Evansville, Ind., complaints from a local pastor resulted in an article in the Evansville Press. In Tucson, one church leader, who was initially upset by the letter, called Americans United for more information. The man said his church had distributed Christian Coalition voter guides in the past but, after talking with AU staff, he said the church would not do so this year.

AU's Lynn said the campaign isn't designed to intimidate anyone. Rather, he said, the purpose is to educate church leaders and the public about specific provisions of the IRS Code that churches need to know about.

"Some church officials don't know about the IRS ban on political intervention," said Lynn. "As a result, they are being misled by the Christian Coalition, which is telling them that they can do something that they legally cannot do. The last time we distributed this material, in 1996, many church officials called or wrote to say they appreciated being given factual information about this important topic."

Americans United launched Project Fair Play in March of 1996 as a way of responding to the growing phenomenon of church-based politicking. The original terms of the project called for Americans United to file complaints with the IRS whenever it encountered instances of houses of worship or religious non-profit groups intervening in partisan politics.

To date, 12 houses of worship, one religious broadcaster and two religious non-profit groups have been reported to the IRS under Fair Play. The project is non-partisan, and some of the churches and organizations reported are accused of endorsing Republicans, others Democrats.

Lynn said expanding Project Fair Play to also report churches that distribute biased voter guides -- whether they promote Republicans, Democrats or candidates from other parties -- seemed a logical step. He added that it's not too late for Americans United members to help with Project Fair Play's latest effort.

The AU director urged members to send in any information about the distribution of slanted voter guides in houses of worship. Members should include a written statement giving all of the relevant information and a copy of the actual voter guide.

Mail the information to: Project Fair Play Coordinator Americans United 1816 Jefferson Place, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20036-2505.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Americans United for Separation of Church and State
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:Church & State
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Words:1339
Previous Article:RACE TO THE BOTTOM.
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