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How Robertson, Falwell And Company Are Skirting Federal Law To Gain New Power In Washington

The Rev. Jerry Falwell has been very clear about his top political goal this year: He plans to do all he can to elect Texas Gov. George W. Bush to the presidency in November, and he doesn't care to hear any complaining from fellow Religious Right activists who say the Republican candidate's rhetoric is not conservative enough.

Speaking of Bush, the Lynchburg televangelist told The New York Times in early August, "Our crowd needs to get in the battle, keep their mouths shut and help this man win."

Although he runs a tax-exempt ministry, Falwell has the right as a citizen to work personally on behalf of candidates. However, the controversial Baptist preacher has a history of playing fast and loose with federal tax law, and experts say his Republican electioneering may be pushing churches and other religious organizations into a legally precarious position.

On June 12, Falwell was interviewed by Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, for later broadcast on an SBC radio and Internet program called "For Faith and Family." During the interview, conducted before an audience at the SBC convention in Orlando, Falwell explicitly urged listeners to vote against Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.

"The American people, I think, sense something right now -- that we are about to lose America," Falwell asserted. He later went on to add, "Ronald Reagan would not have been president unless Bible-believing Christians in 1979 and 1980 by the millions said, `We've had enough,' and threw Jimmy Cater out and put Ronald Reagan in, to put it bluntly. If we don't do the same thing Nov. 7 with Mr. Gore and get somebody in there to rebuild the moral values and fabric of this nation, we're going to be in the same mess or worse than we were in 1980."

Falwell, speaking as a private citizen and not on behalf of his ministry, is free to preach a partisan gospel, but the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant body, is a 501(c)(3) organization that, under federal tax law, may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Airing Falwell's attack on the vice president would seem to violate that standard.

Americans United staffers read a report about the Falwell interview in the Associated Baptist Press and were quick to respond. In a June 14 letter to Land, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn warned the SBC official that broadcasting Falwell's partisan appeal could jeopardize the denomination's tax exemption.

"If [Falwell's] comments had been broadcast live, the Commission and the Southern Baptist Convention would probably not be held legally responsible for his opposition to the Gore candidacy," Lynn wrote. "However, since the program was taped for later broadcast, airing it now -- knowing of its partisan content -- could put the SBC's tax-exempt status in jeopardy. Accordingly, I am writing today to strongly urge you to refrain from airing this interview."

Land apparently did not appreciate the advice. On June 21 he replied to Lynn, dismissing AU's argument and pledging defiance. Land wrote that the Falwell interview, which lasted 44 minutes, would be edited down to 18 to 20 minutes to fit the program but added, "Our normal and standard editing process will in no way be influenced by what I believe any fair minded person would perceive to be your heavy handed attempt to intimidate our ministry and our freedom of speech. If you want to know what parts of Dr. Falwell's interview we choose to air, I would encourage you to listen to our broadcasts. I cannot think of anyone who would benefit more from listening to the program."

Land was identified by The Washington Post as a supporter of Bush as early as last fall. He and Falwell may have been interested in signaling their support of the Texas governor to Southern Baptists nationwide through the radio program. If that was their goal, Americans United brought it to a screeching halt.

For all of Land's bluster, when the interview aired July 25, Falwell's anti-Gore bombast was missing. Land aired the portion of the interview with Falwell saying evangelical Christians had elected Reagan in 1980 but cut him off after the word "bluntly." The edited interview contained no mention of Gore at all.

AU's Lynn was pleased. "I'm delighted that Richard Land chose not to put the SBC's tax exemption in jeopardy," Lynn said. "Had he ignored our advice, penalties from the IRS would have been likely. The Baptist agency's leaders contacted their lawyers, considered the consequences of ignoring federal tax law and decided to play by the rules."

As the SBC flap indicates, disputes over the proper role of religion and politics are alive and well as the country approaches election day. As in the past election years, Americans United is active on many fronts, working to help religious leaders and lay people alike understand the rules governing political activity by houses of worship.

This year Americans United has reactivated "Project Fair Play," a special effort designed to protect the integrity of the religious community and the political process by making certain that federal tax law is respected.

In previous election cycles, Americans United has advised houses of worship about the pitfalls of distributing biased "voter guides" prepared by the Christian Coalition, TV preacher Pat Robertson's ultra-conservative political group. That arm of Project Fair Play is being expanded, and this month Americans United is sending letters about tax law governing non-profit groups and political activity to thousands of houses of worship throughout the nation. In addition, a special legal memorandum has been prepared detailing the Internal Revenue Service rules.

The effort comes at a time when the Christian Coalition is struggling to maintain its political influence. Over the past two years the Coalition has seen its budget decline, its membership atrophy and a number of its chapters collapse. Three months ago, Republican regulars in South Carolina -- one of the Coalition's strongest states -- beat back the Robertson group's effort to kick out the state party chairman and stack the central committee.

With the Coalition struggling, Robertson is desperate to find a way to revive the organization's clout. In this election season, Robertson has promised to distribute 75 million "voter guides."

Robertson clearly sees the guides as helpful to the Bush candidacy. During the GOP primary season, when the Texas governor's run was briefly threatened by the upstart candidacy of U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Robertson groused on CNN that the Coalition was under no obligation to distribute voter guides and would not do so if McCain, a critic of the Religious Right, won the nomination. Thus the TV preacher all but conceded that his supposedly "nonpartisan" guides are unleashed on behalf of or in opposition to certain candidates.

Robertson also knows that Americans United can be a serious impediment to his plans. Last February, just before the California primary, AU and its allies distributed Project Fair Play materials to churches around the state, explaining that Coalition voter guides are deliberately stacked. (The California guides favored Bush and attempted to portray McCain, who has a conservative voting record in the Senate and was once given a 93 percent approval rating by the Coalition itself, as a liberal with views similar to Democrats Gore and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley.)

The Americans United memo to clergy stated bluntly, "Our considered advice to you is this: Don't distribute Christian Coalition voter guides through your house of worship."

Last June an infuriated Robertson sent a three-page letter to Coalition members nationwide, warning them of "AN UNDERHANDED EFFORT TO BULLY CHURCHES ACROSS THIS NATION AND STIFLE CHRISTIAN COALITION OF AMERICA'S HISTORIC VOTER GUIDE PROJECT."

The Robertson missive charged that "Americans United for Separation of Church and State -- a so-called `watchdog' group -- has launched a nationwide effort for the sole purpose of crippling our historic Voter Guide project this election year. This ultra-liberal organization has sent a letter to pastors across America deceitfully warning them not to distribute our Voter Guides!"

Continued Robertson, "Americans United has a long history of whining to the IRS about Christian and conservative groups that are successfully exercising their political responsibilities."

In defending the Coalition's work, Robertson frequently asserts that the voter guides have been cleared by a federal court. Americans United observers say that claim is grossly inaccurate. It is true that last year the Federal Election Commission lost the bulk of a lawsuit charging that the Coalition had improperly coordinated its activities with Republican campaigns. That ruling, however, centered on federal election law, which is notoriously weak and full of loopholes. Federal tax law, by contrast, is much tighter.

A provision in the IRS Code states that non-profit organizations holding a 501(c)(3) status, which includes houses of worship, may not "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office."

The IRS has been very clear that it has a "zero tolerance" policy in enforcing this provision. On July 5, the agency released a media statement reminding non-profit groups of the law. "These organizations," the IRS said, "cannot endorse any candidates, make donations to their campaigns, engage in fund raising, distribute statements, or become involved in any other activities that may be beneficial or detrimental to any candidate."

The IRS pointed out that voter forums and voter guides can violate this standard if they show a preference for or against certain candidates. The agency statement noted that in 1988 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the IRS revocation of the tax-exempt status of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York after the 501(c)(3) group issued a voter guide rating candidates for elective judicial office.

Americans United's Lynn argues that the Coalition's guides are deliberately skewed to favor certain candidates -- almost always conservative Republicans. Democrats and moderate Republicans, he says, are portrayed in a negative light. (For more information about this, see "Stacked Deck," Church & State, July-August 1996.) As such, Lynn maintains, the guides are the functional equivalent of campaign literature and cannot be distributed by churches and other non-profit organizations.

To respond to distortions by Robertson and the Coalition, Americans United has hired a Washington, D.C., law firm that specializes in tax issues to draft documents about church-based politicking. Americans United distributed thousands of copies of a memo prepared by this law firm in 1996 and 1998. This year, the updated information refutes the Coalition's claims about its voter guides being cleared in the FEC case. (To see the complete memo, go to Americans United's website,, and click on the section titled "Churches and Politics.")

Americans United is distributing this memo and other educational materials to churches all over the country. Several AU chapters and local activists are working on the project. And, while the memo specifically mentions Christian Coalition voter guides as problematic, the rest of the material is designed to educate churches about the pitfalls of permitting any partisan activity in the pulpit, whether it is designed to help Republicans, Democrats, third-party candidates or independents.

Electioneering by non-profit religious groups can take many forms. In July a Roman Catholic organization called Priests for Life announced a $1 million-dollar ad campaign designed to turn up the heat on pro-choice politicians, especially those who are Catholic. The group says it will place "issue ads" in newspapers and on television before the November elections to pressure candidates to follow the anti-abortion dogma of the Roman Catholic bishops.

Americans United warned that the effort may violate federal tax law. "This project raises serious legal questions," AU's Lynn told the media. "We will be watching closely and will not hesitate to report violations of the law to the IRS."

Priests for Life insists that the campaign will be non-partisan and will not target specific candidates. But Lynn said statements by the Rev. Frank Pavone, PFL's national director, indicate that the group may have a partisan agenda.

In June, for example, the National Catholic Register reported that Pavone met with GOP candidate Bush and proclaimed him "pro-life." At the same time, the priest criticized Gore, remarking, "Politics is the art of the possible. And the question is, will he [Bush] improve it or make it worse? There's no question about it. I don't think any sane person can miss the fact that Al Gore is an apostle for abortion. He won't just keep it the same, he'll make it worse." (The nationally distributed Catholic newspaper ran a photo with the article showing a beaming Pavone standing beside Bush.)

Lynn also noted that Pavone told the Associated Press that he has met with pro-choice Catholic politicians to demand they conform to church doctrine on abortion. The activist priest told the news agency his group is airing the ads after failing to persuade these politicians to change their minds; he also recently told U.S. News & World Report that Catholic candidates may specifically targeted if they "don't come around to the church's teaching."

At a Washington, D.C., press conference July 19, Pavone asserted that no true Christian can support legal abortion. "Anyone who identifies himself as `pro-choice' on abortion, first of all, contradicts the teachings of the Catholic Church," Pavone said. "There is not more than one Catholic position on abortion. Furthermore, this is not only a Catholic issue, but one of basic, fundamental human rights.... Abortion not only contradicts the teachings of the Catholic Church, but it contradicts the Christian Gospel, as well as the Declaration of Independence."

Pavone, labeling Christian advocates of legal abortion "false prophets," went on to say, "To supporters of abortion who profess Christianity of any denomination, we say, `Stop being a scandal to the Gospel of Jesus Christ!'"

Observed AU's Lynn, "This is a tainted project. Pavone and his group appear to be targeting specific candidates. If they do, they run the risk of severe penalties by the Internal Revenue Service."

Why are groups like Priests for Life, the Christian Coalition and others so interested in campaign 2000? Political observers say much is at stake this year. The race for the White House has captured the bulk of the attention, but it's also worth noting that every seat in the 435-member House of Representatives will be filled. In the House, Republicans hold a slim six-member majority, and polls show the Democrats have a shot at regaining control. The GOP holds a four-member edge in the Senate, and control of that chamber is being contested as well.

The future of the Supreme Court also hangs in the balance. The high court is deeply divided on church-state separation and other hot-button social issues, and turnover is expected during the next four years. Justice John Paul Stevens, a leading defender of church-state separation, turned 80 this year, and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist turns 76 this October. Other justices, including Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have had recent health problems. If just a few justices step down due to age or health problems, the balance of power on the court could shift rapidly.

Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president and either confirmed or rejected by a Senate vote. Given the current situation, the next president may have the opportunity to name as many as four justices.

What type of justices will they be? Both Bush and Gore have been asked to identify Supreme Court justices they admire. Bush pointed to Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, two justices who have criticized church-state precedent for being too separationist. Gore named former justices Harry Blackmun and Thurgood Marshall, both of whom supported the court's separationist doctrine.

Religious Right leaders are well aware of what's at stoke. Robertson has talked about the importance of the Supreme Court repeatedly on his "700 Club" program. He also told interviewers on CNN Aug. 5 that he spoke with Bush about the issue while in South Carolina, and the Republican candidate said he would appoint "strict constructionists" -- language Robertson took to mean judges he would approve of.

Falwell has stressed the issue as well and has launched a voter mobilization crusade to ensure that Bush wins. (See "He's B-a-ack!," Church & State May 2000.) In their desire to stack the court with justices in the mold of Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas, Robertson and Falwell have agreed to back Bush, even though the GOP candidate's public image is more moderate than they would like.

But one Religious Right leader -- James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family -- isn't interested in playing along. Throughout May, June and July Dobson kept up a steady drumbeat of pressure on Bush, insisting that he select a running mate with anti-abortion views.

In late May Dobson, who normally avoids interaction with the national media, summoned several reporters from major newspapers to the FOF compound in Colorado Springs for a meeting. "Bush's advisers are telling him he can have it all -- the big tent -- which I don't believe works in this culture," the religious broadcaster asserted. "The strategists have concluded that ... they can hold onto the conservative Christians and get the mushy middle at the same time. I don't believe you can do it."

On June 26 Dobson publicly released a letter he sent to Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, who had urged Dobson to set aside his "uncompromising views on abortion" as the Texas governor considered a running mate.

In the missive, Dobson blasted Bush for meeting with a gay Republican group. He went on to write, "Apparently, GOP strategists believe offended and spurned pro-family voters will support Mr. Bush because `they have nowhere else to go,' and because they fear Al Gore. I believe they are wrong. If Bush chooses a pro-abortion running mate, enough of them will stay home or vote for another candidate to sway the outcome."

Concluded Dobson, "Compromise on abortion? I think you'll find in November that I'm not the only conservative who is unwilling to `set aside' my basic beliefs. If you doubt that, ask yourself whatever happened to `President' Bob Dole."

Dobson's threats and pressure from other Religious Right operatives may have had an effect. In late July Bush announced that former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney would be his running mate. Cheney, who is also a former House member from Wyoming, is staunchly anti-abortion and holds conservative views pleasing to the Religious Right.

Bush has been eager to mollify the Religious Right since the beginning days of his campaign. Early on he quietly assembled a "values defense team" of prominent Religious Right leaders to vouch for his stands in favor of abortion restrictions, school vouchers and more interaction between church and state. According to The Washington Post, members include TV preachers John Hagee and James Robison, Kay Cole James of Robertson's Regent University, Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus and several officials with the Southern Baptist Convention, including Land and Paige Patterson, former SBC president. The Post reported that many of these Religious Right honchos were brought into Bush's camp by Ralph Reed, former Christian Coalition director and now a Bush campaign consultant.

Democrat Al Gore has taken a prochoice stance on abortion and he opposes school vouchers. However, he too wants to inject a little religiosity into his campaign. Last year an advisor to the Gore campaign told reporters that the Democrats "are going to take back God this time." In his speeches, Gore also talks about his plan to funnel tax aid to churches through "charitable choice" social service subsidies.

In early August Gore selected Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) as his running mate. Generally regarded as a centrist Democrat, Lieberman is a booster of charitable choice and school vouchers. During his successful race for the seat in 1988 against Republican incumbent Lowell Weicker, Lieberman stressed his support for silent prayer in public schools. (Lieberman says he will defer to Gore on issues where they disagree.)

As the campaign ends its final stages, observers are watching closely to see what role the Religious Right plays. While the Christian Coalition has suffered organizational difficulties, staffers at Americans United are skeptical of media claims that the Religious Right movement's overall political influence has waned.

For his part, Robertson seems aware that his organization has experienced problems, but he is eager to get back in the game. At a "Faith and Freedom" rally that took place during the Republican convention in Philadelphia, Robertson dismissed reports that his organization is dying and vowed it would be more active than ever this election cycle.

"I'm so amused when I read these articles that say the Christian Coalition is dead, the Religious Right is dead," Robertson told a crowd of several thousand. "I'll tell ya, they ought to put out a story to the fire department here that the largest ballroom in the Marriott Hotel is jam-packed with corpses on Tuesday afternoon `-- all cheering, `Amen!'"

Robertson also urged the crowd to "mobilize for a great crusade this fall."

AU's Lynn warned people not to become complacent or to assume that the Religious Right is a spent force. Lynn said the Christian Coalition is clearly experiencing internal problems but added that those difficulties may not prove fatal to the organization. Even if they were, he added, other Religious Right groups are waiting in me wings and would be eager to pick up the pieces.

Former Family Research Council head Gary Bauer, for example, is reportedly starting a new Religious Right group. Bauer, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP presidential nomination this year, may be hoping to follow in the footsteps of Robertson and parlay his failed quest for the White House into a national grassroots political organization.

Remarked Lynn, who has monitored the Religious Right since its emergence on the national scene in the late 1970s, "The Christian Coalition still has a lot of money and huge telephone banks and mailing lists. Alongside that, groups like the Traditional Values Coalition, Jerry Falwell Ministries and others are jumping into the fray and ratcheting up their political activity. Anytime you have a volatile situation like this, the potential is there for the creation of massive political machines for disseminating misinformation and influencing elections."
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Title Annotation:legality of mixing politics and religious groups and persons
Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Previous Article:VOUCHER Doubleheader.
Next Article:Christian Coalition Wins Skirmish With IRS, But Loses War.

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