The government on Tuesday charged the Christian Coalition with improperly aiding Republican candidates through its voter guides and other activities.
The group spent thousands of dollars to promote the candidacies of figures such as former President George Bush, Sen. Jesse Helms, Senate candidate Oliver North and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Federal Election Commission charged in a civil suit filed in U.S. District Court.
Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed called the suit "totally baseless" and said he was confident the courts "will affirm that people of faith have every right to be involved as citizens and voters."
The commission charged that the Christian Coalition distributed voter guides, identified Republican voters and used mail and telephone banks to get them to the polls in federal elections in 1990, 1992 and 1994 - all with partisan intentions. The commission also said the coalition had used corporate funds on behalf of Republicans.
Such activities amount to "express advocacy" for particular candidates and legally should have been either reported as independent political expenditures or as in-kind contributions to the candidates, the commission argued.
The voter guides compare candidates in state, local and federal races on a series of issues the group deems important. The coalition plans to distribute more than 60 million copies of the guides this year.
The suit asks the court to impose fines that could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, to prevent further use of corporate money to promote candidates and to force the coalition to disclose the money it spends on politics.
The Christian Coalition, founded in 1989 by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, now claims 1.7 million members nationwide and has grown to be one of the most formidable forces in conservative politics.
Part of its strength comes from its tax-free status. The coalition is set up as what the tax code calls a "social welfare" group, meaning its primary purpose is promoting the public good, and not partisan politics.
The Internal Revenue Service has never ruled on whether the group meets the test for tax-free status, however, and officials said the elections commission case could damage the coalition's claim.
"It is very important to their financial viability to have the nonprofit status," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at American University and author of "Second Coming," a book about Christian conservatives in Virginia politics. …