Senators ask Justice Department to investigate church-state group

Monday, August 2, 1999

In an effort to protect “religious voters” from hostility against their influence on politics, six U.S. senators have asked the Justice Department to investigate a national civil rights group for allegedly trying to muzzle religious voices in politics.

Earlier this month, Sens. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., Jesse Helms, R-N.C., Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., Don Nickles, R-Okla., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan. urged U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to conduct a criminal investigation of Americans United for Separation of Church and State a nonprofit religious liberty group based in Washington, D.C. The senators said the group had tried to “disenfranchise religious voters by intimidating people of faith into not participating in the political process.”

The senators' seven-paragraph letter reached Reno only days after Pat Robertson, the televangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition, met with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Sens. Nickles and Coverdell to discuss ways to re-energize grassroots voters.

According to the senators, Americans United has unlawfully disparaged the Christian Coalition's voter drives and attempted to discourage its members through intimidation, from participating in the political process. In early June the IRS stripped the Coalition of its tax-exempt status after years of complaints from groups such as American United that the coalition had abused its status by electioneering for Republicans.

Citing a brief a report from the June 24 Congressional Quarterly Daily Monitor about the coalition's church-based voter-registration guides, the senators urged Reno to look closely at “any effort to discourage churches from participating in lawful activities and, by extension, to dissuade religious Americans from participating in the political process.”

The CQ article quoted Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, as saying “churches would be reluctant to open their doors to the Christian Coalition” because of the IRS ruling. Lynn also said that his group would provide information to churches throughout the country regarding the dangers to their tax status if they were to distribute the coalition's guides.

Besides noting Lynn's comments, the senators said that “considering the well-orchestrated past efforts of Americans United to target pastors and other religious leaders to receive an 'urgent message' regarding voter information — in reality, a subterfuge for a threatened IRS review of their tax-exempt status — we urge that you open an inquiry to determine whether this group has violated either the spirit or letter of federal law.”

The senators quoted a portion of federal law passed in the 1960s to combat efforts by Southern whites to prevent African-Americans from attempting to exercise fundamental rights. The law provides criminal penalties for whoever “intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with their rights to vote.”

Last week, Lynn sent a letter to the senators demanding an apology.

“Frankly, I am appalled at this outrageous and wholly baseless action, and I am asking for an immediate retraction and public apology,” Lynn said. “My organization's activities in attempting to educate churches and religious leaders about the legal difficulties associated with houses of worship engaging in partisan politicking have been clearly lawful and reasonable. What you have chosen to describe as 'intimidation' is actually an educational effort to designed to inform religious leaders about federal tax law.”

Steve Benen, a writer and spokesman for Americans United, said that the group had received no further responses from the senators.

“I would say that the senators intentions were not to protect anyone other than Pat Robertson, their biggest supporter,” Benen said. “Their letter offers no proof that we have tried to intimidate or harass anyone; their charges are patently absurd and offensive.”