Americans United Cleared!

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Helms-Robertson Plot Against AU Fails At Justice Department

If it had been left up to six Republican senators and their friend Pat Robertson, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn would be sitting in a federal prison right now, locked behind bars on a charge of harassing and intimidating Christian voters.

As it turns out, Lynn won't be spending his days as a convicted felon. Last month, Attorney General Janet Reno rejected the senators' demand for the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Americans United -- and in the process cleared the organization of all charges.

The strange saga began last July, when the six senators -- Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Paul Coverdell of Georgia, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina -- filed a formal complaint against Americans United with the Justice Department, charging that the organization's efforts to educate houses of worship about tax law was a violation of federal statutes that forbid intimidation of voters. The senators requested a criminal investigation of Americans United. (See "The Helms Witch Hunt Project," September 1999 Church & State.)

In a July 2 letter to Reno, the senators charged that Americans United may have "attempted to disenfranchise religious voters by intimidating people of faith into not participating in the political process."

The senators were apparently referring to efforts undertaken by Americans United in 1996 and 1998 as a part of "Project Fair Play," a special program to educate churches about the proper role of religion in politics. In both years, Americans United sent educational materials to churches nationwide, advising them that Christian Coalition "voter guides" are partisan and that distributing them in church could result in revocation of tax-exempt status.

The materials were mailed, e-mailed, faxed and made available on the World Wide Web to thousands of houses of worship representing dozens of denominations. The mailing consisted of an eight-page document that explains tax law as it pertains to churches. The document, prepared by two Washington attorneys who specialize in issues relating to political activity by churches and other non-profit groups, included an introductory cover letter by Lynn.

This activity, according to Helms and the other senators, may have constituted an effort to intimidate voters.

The senators' gambit appeared to be legally groundless all along. While two sections of the U.S. Code do deal with harassment and intimidation of voters, they concern activities like threats of physical harm or economic retaliation, not legitimate voter education campaigns. The laws were put in place during the struggle for civil rights and were intended primarily to protect voting by African Americans and other minorities.

Americans United suspected that something other than a desire to ensure every American's access to the ballot box had motivated the senators (especially in the case of Helms, whose allies have used heavy-handed tactics to depress black voter turnout in his campaigns). Sure enough, it soon came to light that Helms and the others had filed the complaint just a few weeks after Christian Coalition President Robertson traveled to Washington to plot political strategy for the 2000 elections with the GOP Senate leadership last June. …