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Unsavory subpoena.

August 4 was a routine business day at Americans United for Separation of Church and State -- until the middle of the afternoon. Around 3 p.m., however, a federal marshal strolled into our offices in Washington, D.C., bearing a subpoena from the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.

Addressed to the "Custodian of Documents," the nine-page subpoena ordered Americans United to appear before the committee on Aug. 22 "to testify what you may know relative to the subject matters under consideration by said Committee." It also demanded that Americans United turn over an exhaustive list of documents relating to internal governance, organizational activities and other matters.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, who accepted the subpoena, was at first puzzled. The Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, headed by Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), has been investigating possibly illegal donations to political candidates by foreign governments during the 1996 elections an issue far removed from Americans United's work. But after making a few phone calls, Lynn soon learned what was afoot.

Thompson's committee has decided to move beyond the foreign contributions issue and look at the topic of election-related activity by non-profit organizations. Democrats on the panel insisted that the investigation include the Christian Coalition, TV preacher Pat Robertson's Virginia-based political unit. In a bizarre form of quid pro quo, Republicans in turn decided to subpoena the organization best known for opposing the Christian Coalition -- and zeroed right in on Americans United.

"Suddenly it became clear what was going on," Lynn remarked. "This was a purely political action on the part of the committee. The Christian Coalition was subpoenaed for its blatantly partisan politicking, so the Coalition's allies on the committee decided to go after Americans United, even though we have done nothing wrong."

Lynn said the ploy will not work. He pointed out that Americans United, unlike the Christian Coalition, is not in the business of electioneering. "The Christian Coalition spends millions every year keeping its Religious Right political machine well oiled," Lynn said. "The group works hand in glove with candidates that toe its line and attacks political hopefuls they don't like through biased and misleading `voter's guides."'

Continued Lynn, "This is the type of activity that sparked a Federal Elections Commission lawsuit against the Christian Coalition, and led to numerous complaints of improper politicking against the group. By contrast, there simply is no evidence that Americans United has ever violated federal campaign law. We are a non-partisan group that exists to educate Americans about the importance of church-state separation in defending religious liberty. No government agencies are investigating AU, and no one has filed complaints against us. Politics is not our business.

"In short," said Lynn, "the Senate subpoena is outrageous."

Lynn said the purpose of the subpoena is to harass and intimidate Americans United. He noted that one committee staffer told Americans United that Republicans on the committee subpoenaed AU as a form of payback after committee Democrats subpoenaed the Christian Coalition.

Thompson's committee includes senators who are closely aligned with the Christian Coalition. Thompson himself has received a 91 percent approval rating from the Robertson group. Two other committee members, Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), have 100 percent approval ratings. In addition, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), elected in 1996, is a Religious Right favorite with close ties to James Dobson's focus on the family. (Brownback has a 92 percent approval rating from the Christian Coalition.)

Nickles might have a special reason to single out Americans United for harassment. On July 3 Americans United filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against MetroChurch, an Edmond, Okla., congregation. The church had endorsed candidates for public office and worked with Republican Party officials to distribute Christian Coalition voter guides. According to AU allies in Oklahoma, Nickles visited MetroChurch and shortly before the 1992 election received a pastor's blessing there.

Lynn said Americans United intends to cooperate with the Thompson committee, but will not allow the panel to ride roughshod over us. AU staffers, he said, will pull together many of the documents the committee has requested. But some of the committee's demands, Lynn says, appear to be overly broad.

"They are asking for everything but the kitchen sink," Lynn remarked. "This is clearly a fishing expedition designed to pull Americans United away from our day-to-day work of defending church-state separation an d opposing the Religious Right."

Asked about the scope of the documents being requested, one Senate committee staffer told Americans United, "We don't know what we're looking for until we see it."

Americans United has retained expert legal counsel -- attorneys from the Washington, D.C., firm of McKenna & Cuneo -- and will examine its options. In the meantime, Lynn urged AU members not to worry that the organization will in any way bow to this attempted intimidation or temper its aggressive response to the Religious Right.

"I will not be silenced by Pat Robertson or his cronies in the U.S. Senate," Lynn said. "In fact, the AU staff and I are determined to redouble our opposition to the Religious Right in light of this incident. I suppose we should be flattered. Americans United must be doing something right if we've got the Christian Coalition so worried that they are trying to sic a Senate committee on us."

Concluded Lynn, "I'm only too happy to go down to Capitol Hill and share with the committee all I know about improper partisan political activity at Americans United. But I'm afraid it's going to make for a dull morning."
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Title Annotation:general subpoena
Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:Church & State
Date:Sep 1, 1997
Previous Article:Free Exercise restricted.
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