Magazine article Church & State

Special Delivery: Americans United Letter on Church Electioneering Gets No Stamp of Approval from Religious Right

Magazine article Church & State

Special Delivery: Americans United Letter on Church Electioneering Gets No Stamp of Approval from Religious Right

Article excerpt

Focus on the Family power-broker James Dobson was ready to sit out this year's election battles. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of social-issues legislation in GOP-dominated Washington, he was angry at the Republican politicians he helped put in power.

At the Religious Right's "2006 Values Voter Summit" in Washington, D.C., in September, Dobson said, "For the past two years, for the most of it, I've been extremely disappointed with what the Republicans have done with the power they were given."

But after contemplating a Congress with the Democrats in charge, he explained, the Colorado Springs-based religious broadcaster changed his mind.

Dobson told a packed ballroom at the Omni Shoreham that during the summer he prayed about what to do. And then he came to Washington where he spent two weeks in a hotel room meeting with different leaders of the House and Senate and various government offices.

"And I tell you what," Dobson said, "I came home absolutely convinced that there is no choice because the alternative is terrible."

Despite his misgivings about the Republican Party, Dobson has thrown himself and his vast Focus on the Family (FOF) empire behind keeping the GOP in power. In August, his ministry sent an e-mail to supporters that announced a major effort to use houses of worship in battleground states to intervene in the elections.

Dobson's FOF appealed for volunteers to work with affiliates in eight states with hotly contested congressional and gubernatorial races to mobilize evangelical Christian voters. Targets announced were Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Minnesota, Montana and Tennessee.

According to the e-mail, Dobson's outfit was recruiting coordinators for each county and each evangelical congregation throughout the states. Activists would be asked to prod pastors to speak about political issues, conduct voter-registration drives and distribute "voter guides and get-out-the-vote efforts."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has long opposed the Religious Right's efforts to meld politics and religion, blasted FOF's scheme as a "drive to build a church-based machine."

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said in a press statement that houses of worship, which are tax-exempt and therefore nonpartisan, should refuse to work with Dobson.

"He has made it abundantly clear that electing Republicans is an integral part of his agenda, and he doesn't mind risking the tax exemption of churches in the process," Lynn said.

Americans United swiftly went on the offensive. Since 1996, AU has sponsored Project Fair Play, a program designed to educate houses of worship on federal tax law provisions barring non-profit groups from electioneering. The Internal Revenue Service Code prohibits all non-profits, including religious ones, from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. If groups are found by the IRS to be in violation of that bar, they risk losing their tax privileges or being fined.

In September, Americans United kicked Project Fair Play into high gear, rolling out a massive mailing to all houses of worship in 11 states, where questionable Religious Right efforts are under way.

At a press conference Sept. 18 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Lynn announced the endeavor. Those states included the ones targeted by Dobson, as well as Texas, Virginia and Missouri, where Americans United was aware of similar Religious Right politicking schemes.

Lynn told reporters that the letter was not meant to muzzle the voices of religious leaders, despite the Religious Right's claims to the contrary.

Religious Right organizations, such as FOF and the Family Research Council have "engaged in a great deal of fear-mongering over this issue and have implied that my organization is trying to gag clergy," Lynn said. "This is totally false. …

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