Civil rights groups decry distribution of Christian Coalition’s voter guides

Tuesday, November 3, 1998

Two religious-liberty groups have called the Christian Coalition's 1998 voter guides Republican propaganda that may endanger the tax-exempt status of any church in which they were distributed.

Before today's elections, the two groups sent letters to thousands of the nation's churches urging them to refrain from becoming politically involved in the mid-term election. Americans United for Separation of Church and State also included in its early October letter a warning that any churches distributing the “Christian Coalition's biased voter guides” would be reported to the Internal Revenue Service.

“After carefully studying Coalition voter's guides from previous years, I am convinced that they are in fact partisan campaign literature that advocate the election of certain candidates and the defeat of others,” wrote Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Independent scholars have reached the same conclusion. I am a Christian minister, and I believe in the right of religious leaders to speak out on moral and social issues. But houses of worship should be beacons of truth, not cogs in a partisan machine.

“Federal tax law strictly forbids non-profit organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns or advocating the election or defeat of candidates for public office,” Lynn continued. “This bar extends to the mere distribution of materials that indicate an endorsement of or opposition to any candidate for public office. The penalty for violating the IRS code may include loss of tax-exempt status. The bottom line is that houses of worship that distribute Christian Coalition voter's guides run the risk of having their tax-exempt status challenged and possibly revoked.”

The Interfaith Alliance, a national group dedicated to promoting a positive role for religion in public life, has sent more than 20,000 letters to religious leaders criticizing the coalition's voter guides.

“First, we affirm the historic role of religious leaders in our public life and in fact believe that as an act of faith, we must encourage thoughtful and active civic participation,” said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance. “Yet we have seen far too often the religious right's political operatives manipulate religious leaders into disseminating partisan and biased voter guides two days before the election, leaving congregants and candidates no time to evaluate the accuracy of information. This unethical strategy is a deceptive ploy that has more to do with electing candidates than informing voters.”

Like Americans United, the Interfaith Alliance has warned churches that they could forfeit their tax-exempt status if they circulated the voter guides.

The Christian Coalition, founded in 1989 by television evangelist Pat Robertson, defends its guides as educational, nonpartisan documents that compare voting records of candidates. The Internal Revenue Service has yet to decide whether the coalition meets tax-exempt status. The coalition, however, has operated as a tax-exempt group pending a decision. Americans United has argued that “in light of its history and actions, the Coalition's application for tax-exempt status should be rejected.”

Randy Tate, executive director of the coalition, in a letter to religious leaders in early October, accused Americans United of trying to “intimidate and harass Christian pastors” so that they would not distribute the voter guides.

“As he does each election cycle, Lynn makes threats about tax-exempt status,” Tate wrote. “Some pastors are scared off, which is exactly what he wants. But, in fact, there is no risk, because the Christian Coalition takes great care to see that its voter guides are absolutely correct in accordance with the law. Our nonpartisan voter guides meet all IRS and [Federal Election Commission] guidelines and regulations for distribution” by a nonprofit group.

In a statement issued late last week, Tate said he hoped 45 million voter guides would have been distributed before today. “This will be our most comprehensive election year effort ever,” he said. “We are combining the proven methods of grassroots action with the tools of high-tech to energize people of faith throughout the nation to take an active part in the electoral process on November 3.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian law firm also founded by Robertson, has said his group would defend any church sued or threatened over distributing the coalition's voter guides.

“There has been an attempt to intimidate pastors and their churches during this election cycle,” Sekulow said. “There is a campaign underway by organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State that is designed to confuse and intimidate churches. These scare tactics simply are an attempt to stifle free speech. The law is clear. Churches and their pastors have the right to address political issues like homosexuality and abortion from a biblical perspective. There is nothing in the tax code that prohibits a church or its pastor from addressing these moral issues.”

Milton Cerny and Albert Lauber Jr., two Washington, D.C.-based tax lawyers, however, maintain that “election activity by charities, including churches, continues to be a subject of intense IRS interest.” The attorneys, on behalf of Americans United, wrote a memorandum warning churches against disseminating slanted voter guides.

“If a voter guide exhibits bias in favor of or against any candidate, the IRS will treat it as electioneering activity, even if the guide disclaims any intent to make endorsements,” the attorneys wrote. They added that “there is no Supreme Court authority, under either the religion clauses or the free speech clause of the First Amendment, that confers on churches a blanket exemption from tax-law requirements – such as the prohibition against political intervention – that apply even-handedly to churches and other charitable organizations.”

Marc Stern, an attorney for the American Jewish Congress, said that “IRS guidelines are fairly clear that churches cannot create partisan voting guides to distribute immediately before the election.”

Stern said that “the Christian Coalition guidelines do seem to be over the line,” which could raise “problems for the churches that do distribute them.”

Although Stern said the IRS was reluctant to challenge churches unless their actions were blatant, he mentioned an incident that did result in an IRS decision to yank a church's tax- exempt status. In the fall campaign of 1992, the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., had a letter published in USA TODAY, that attacked Bill Clinton's stances on abortion and gay rights. After a lengthy investigation, the IRS revoked the church's tax- exempt status in 1995, saying the church had participated in partisan politics. The ACLJ is now trying to get a U.S. District Court in Washington to overturn the IRS's action.

Elliot Mincberg, legal director and vice president of People for the American Way, said that while it may be permissible for the coalition to distribute the voter guides, churches should have refrained from doing so.

“The coalition's guides are perhaps appropriate for some nonprofit organizations, but they don't comply with the tax-exempt status of churches,” he said. “Therefore, I do think there is a risk for churches that distribute them. The fact is that churches do have free- speech rights, but they must play by the rules of all other nonprofit groups that get tax exemptions. The price for receiving tax-exempt status is that there are some regulations that must be adhered to.”

Despite the controversy, a Baptist pastor in Georgia told The New York Times that he would provide his parishioners with the voter guides.

“There are a lot of folks out there that don't read, don't keep up, and they really rely on those guides,” the Rev. James Merritt said.