Americans United Says Churches That Distribute Biased Voter Guides Will Be Reported to the Internal Revenue Service
Boston, Rob, Church & State
Religious leaders tempted to join forces with the Christian Coalition and jump head first into partisan politics should think again. Such a move, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State, could cost a church its tax-exempt status.
As the 1998 election season winds down, Americans United is wrapping up a new national campaign designed to remind houses of worship that distributing partisan campaign material in the pews is a violation of Internal Revenue Service regulations.
In a major escalation of AU's "Project Fair Play," the organization announced last September that it will begin reporting churches that distribute the Christian Coalition's voter guides -- or other similarly biased guides from other organizations -- to the Internal Revenue Service. At the same time, AU has stepped up its efforts to educate religious leaders about the dangers of partisan political activity in houses of worship.
The new AU offensive is a direct response to efforts by Christian Coalition leaders to drag more churches into partisan politics. Leaders with the group announced last year that they hope to recruit more than 100,000 "church liaisons" to work with local pastors to ensure the widest distribution possible of some 45 million Coalition voter guides this year. One of the duties of the liaisons will be to quell any qualms pastors may have about in-house political activity by passing out material prepared by Christian Coalition attorneys that insist that the Coalition's efforts are merely a permissible form of "voter education."
Americans United disagrees sharply with the Coalition's spin. Officials at the Washington-based group say they have studied Coalition guides from previous years and assert that they are clearly biased and carefully stacked in favor of certain ultra-conservative candidates who hew to the Coalition's position on social issues.
AU notes that independent observers have reached the same conclusion. In their 1996 book Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics, Glenn R. Simpson, a Wall Street Journal reporter, and Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, exposed exactly how the Coalition manipulates its guides to favor selected candidates.
Analyzing CC voter guides from 1994, Simpson and Sabato assert the guides contained "manipulations, distortions and outright falsehoods." Charge Simpson and Sabato, "Rather than simply seeking to inform voters of where candidates stood on the issues, the guides give every appearance of having been designed with the explicit intention of influencing voting decisions in favor of Republicans."
And that, says Americans United, is why they may not be distributed in churches. AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn notes that the IRS Code is crystal clear on this question: Non-profit, tax-exempt organizations holding a 501 (c)(3) status, which includes houses of worship, are absolutely prohibited from distributing partisan campaign material, making financial contributions to political campaigns or endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
"It is unfortunate that we have come to this point," said Lynn. "But the Christian Coalition is trying to mislead America's religious leaders, and we simply must take action to safeguard the integrity of the religious community and the political process."
Continued Lynn, "I have one word for churches tempted to distribute the Christian Coalition's deceitful voter guides: Don't! It is not only a violation of the IRS Code, it's unethical to boot. The Bible, after all, reminds us not to bear false witness."
Last September Americans United commissioned the respected Washington law firm of Caplin and Drysdale to update a memorandum to churches warning them about the distribution of partisan material. The memo, first issued in 1996, is being distributed nationally to denominational headquarters and to individual houses of worship and religious leaders. …